Sieren's China: Former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei on a knife edge

While China's arrest of Interpol chief Meng Hongwei may show strength at home, harsh enforcement of its anti-corruption campaign does not paint a positive picture for the rest of the world, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Many people wrinkled their noses in November 2016 when Meng Hongwei was named the first Chinese president of Interpol – the world's most important international police organization.

Meng was a high-ranking member of China's Communist Party, holding the office of vice minister of public security, and his position as Interpol chief aroused suspicion from the beginning.

At the time, Amnesty International insinuated that Beijing wanted to use a party insider at the head of Interpol to pursue Chinese dissidents and activists, which admittedly wouldn't have been possible under Interpol's internal procedures. Conversely, proponents of Meng's appointment rightly argued that China's place in the world is so important that it should be able to send officials to the head of international organizations.

To strike back against accusations, Meng set out at the beginning of his term to expand Interpol's global influence, while increasing the integration of Interpol members and improving training methods for police in developing countries.

Law and Justice | 06.10.2018

"Interpol must become the center for combating global crime," said Meng after his appointment.

Vanished without a trace

Frank Sieren *PROVISORISCH*

DW's Frank Sieren

Then, at the end of September 2018, Meng simply disappeared. For over two weeks there was no trace of him. On Monday October 8, the Chinese security ministry announced that Meng was being investigated for "suspicion of violating the law," evidently stemming from bribery crimes. However, the charges were vague and opaque, as often happens with such cases in China.

Both Interpol's Secretary General Jürgen Stock and Meng's wife, who reported her husband as missing to French police, had received no information up to that time. During a news conference Sunday, Grace Meng said in a shaky voice that she believed her husband was in danger. The last sign of life she'd had from him was a text message of a knife emoji.

The presumption of innocence plays a minimal role in China. Someone detained by police has few rights, and even those are not always observed. Unfortunately, being held by police without access to a lawyer or family members is usual practice in China. It is even something that people here respond to with gallows humor.

After Meng's disappearance, jokes began to pop up in Chinese web forums that Meng could have eloped with Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

The case of Fan Bingbing

China Schauspielerin Fan Bingbing

Chinese actress Fan Bingbing disappeared from July to October 2018

In July 2018, Fan disappeared without a trace and nothing was heard from the famous actress – no posts on social media and no public appearances. Chinese authorities solved the mystery in October 2018 after they revealed that Fan was in custody on charges of tax evasion.

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On China's social media website Weibo, she apologized to her 62 million followers saying she was "deeply ashamed" and "felt guilty" for what she had done. Fan publically accepted her punishment and said she would do her best to repay the over $100 million in back taxes and fines.

Without a doubt, the heavy hand of China's government is well-received domestically. This is especially because President Xi Jinping does not hesitate to go after top politicians. However, his critics say he takes advantage of the lack of transparency in the anti-corruption campaign for his own political power game.

Read more: China's corruption crackdown 'is slowing the economy'

After Meng's arrest, Xi now faces an additional and justified accusation that he lacks respect for international institutions. 

Leaving Meng's wife in the dark as to her husband's condition, and forcing her to issue public appeals for help, could be written off as a matter of Chinese internal affairs. But letting Interpol sit and wonder for a week what happened to its president is a blatant snub towards the international police agency, and only serves to justify critics of Beijing, who said that it was still much too early to have a Chinese Interpol chief.

With this action, China has damaged its international reputation, or even worse, signaled to the world that it does not care about international rules and, when in doubt, will simply go its own way.

Grace Meng, Frau von Interpol-Präsident Meng Hongwei

Grace Meng, Meng Hongwei's wife talks to journalists in Lyon, France

Who supervises the supervisor? 

President Xi has been able to push through his anti-corruption campaign more effectively since the new National Supervisory Commission was launched in spring 2018. This commission reports directly to the Communist Party's Central Committee, independently of courts, and has more power than the previous disciplinary body. 

Putting people under "state supervision" without due process has become even easier. But it has also become unclear who is supervising the supervisors. At the same time, Beijing's clandestine methods open the door for conspiracy theories.  Eventually the public will find out exactly what Meng has been charged with. Whether or not the charges are justified, however, will in all probability never be completely clear.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said eagerly that China's willingness to participate in international policing would not be affected by Meng's "fall from grace."

"As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a responsible power, China plays its necessary role in international affairs and multilateral organizations," said Lu on Monday.

It may be true that China's willingness has not been affected. The willingness of the West, however, has fallen significantly.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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DW News | 09.10.2018

Interpol chief’s arrest in China leaves many puzzled