NEW YORK – From the military juntas that ruled Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s to Josef Stalin’s iron-fisted regime in the Soviet Union, dictatorships have a long history of making their detractors “disappear.” Today, this sinister practice seems to be making a comeback.
Under the military regimes in Chile or Argentina, a person might be tossed into the sea from a helicopter, never to be found. They might be killed and then burned beyond recognition or coated in lime, to accelerate decomposition, and buried in an unmarked grave.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union, someone could be picked up and taken to the Lubyanka (the KGB headquarters) or some other nightmarish facility at any moment. During the purges of the 1930s and later, members of the Communist Party were particularly vulnerable and millions of Soviet citizens disappeared forever in prisons or the gulag.
Today, modern authoritarians are reviving such behavior, suddenly and covertly snatching people, including well-known figures and high-ranking officials, to be detained or worse. In many cases, the “vanished” do eventually resurface, but with an apparently transformed perspective on their past work or the government that detained them. Here, China and Saudi Arabia stand out — though they are by no means alone — for orchestrating a series of increasingly brazen abductions or vanishings of their detractors.
China was behind last month’s disappearance of Interpol President Meng Hongwei on a trip from France, where Interpol is based, to Beijing, where he also served as vice minister of public security.
Meng’s abduction was particularly shocking, because many Chinese trumpeted his 2016 appointment to Interpol’s highest post — which made him the first Chinese citizen to lead a major global institution — as a sign that the country had finally arrived at the top tier of the international order.
Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping was willing simply to throw away that public relations victory. Eventually, it was announced that Meng had been detained and was being investigated for bribery. The decision, justified as part of China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign — an endeavor that critics say is a cover for eliminating political figures disloyal to Xi — revealed an utter lack of regard, or even contempt, for world opinion.
In fact, Xi is something of a serial kidnapper. Since he came to power in 2012, all sorts of people — from small-scale book publishers in Hong Kong (including some holders of non-Chinese citizenship) to Chinese business leaders — have been covertly kidnapped and returned to China. After a long period of silence and seclusion, they emerged to renounce their past work.
That is what happened to Fan Bingbing, China’s biggest movie star, who disappeared last July, when her previously very active account on the Sina Weibo social media platform (China’s answer to Twitter) suddenly went silent. No one knew what happened, but it was assumed that the government had something to do with it and businesses with which she had spokesperson deals cut ties with her.
Finally, Fan resurfaced earlier this month, issuing a groveling apology for having evaded taxes, for which she will now face massive fines. Tellingly, her statement included plenty of praise for the Communist Party of China, which she credited for her success as an actress. It was all depressingly familiar, recalling as it did the pathetic confessions of Nikolai Bukharin, the editor of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda and others during Stalin’s purges.
Saudi Arabia has also executed a series of high-profile, politically motivated kidnappings. Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was on an official visit to Riyadh. Hariri was isolated even from his bodyguards and forced to resign. Weeks later, and evidently enlightened to his captors’ satisfaction, he was permitted to return to Lebanon and resume his role as its elected leader.
Then, last week, Jamal Khashoggi, an exiled Saudi journalist, vanished after entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document confirming his divorce, so that he could marry a Turkish woman the next day. His fiancee waited at the consulate’s entrance; he never re-emerged.
Khashoggi’s disappearance is further evidence of how little regard today’s authoritarians have for national borders when it comes to silencing their detractors. Precisely what happened to Khashoggi is still unknown, but Turkey’s government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has insisted that he was killed while in the consulate.
According to the Turkish authorities, two teams, totaling 15 people, flew from Riyadh to Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s appointment and left within hours. This, too, is grimly familiar to Russians: Stalin also had special assassination teams, one of which carried out the murder in Mexico of his archenemy, Leon Trotsky. Unsurprisingly, the Saudis have denied any wrongdoing. Khashoggi, they claim, left the consulate.
Russia’s own experience with government-orchestrated disappearances is not limited to the past. President Vladimir Putin’s regime has also been known to target detractors for elimination on foreign soil, as allegedly happened with the nerve-agent attack on the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom in March.
The question is whether autocrats’ contempt for borders or sovereignty in silencing opponents is worth the cost. In the majority of the Western world, Putin is regarded as an outcast, Xi is flirting with a similar loss of credibility and Salman’s reputation as a reformer has been severely damaged, perhaps beyond repair. All of them may soon face a realization like that of Joseph Fouche, Napoleon’s police chief, after the abduction and sham trial of the Duke of Enghien: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.”
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. © Project Syndicate, 2018