In the past week, reports of Chinese authorities’ latest audacious move — forcibly detaining Meng Hongwei, then the president of the international police organization Interpol — has made clear Chinese President Xi Jinping’s deep disdain for the rule of law. But some of Xi’s aspirations could be thwarted if global organizations responded with more-robust opposition to his abuses of power.
Interpol focuses on cross-border or transnational crimes, such as trafficking and, well, cases of missing people. It’s probably best known for issuing color-coded “notices,” or worldwide alerts for law enforcement. For example, a “red notice” is basically a flag that a specific agency is looking to apprehend someone.
There are many reasons to be troubled by these developments. First, there is the blatant disregard for justice. Meng has been secretly detained and his wife threatened after she held a news conference about his disappearance. Meng may be a Chinese citizen, but that does not give the Beijing government an excuse to arrest and detain him without any process. As one human rights advocate explained, “It’s very concerning (that) China thinks it can abduct and arbitrarily detain the sitting head of an international organization without serious consequences.”
Last month, however, the smiles vanished. While traveling home from Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, Meng disappeared. His wife contacted the French police, and on Oct. 7 Chinese authorities announced that they had detained him so that he could be investigated for corruption, although there was no additional information about the crimes of which he was accused. On the same day, Interpol tweeted that it “received the resignation of Mr. Meng Hongwei as president of Interpol with immediate effect.” That bland statement ignored all the circumstances of the case — as if a resignation by an individual held in secret detention was business as usual. Interpol’s acting president said the organization had no advance notice of the investigation or the planned arrest.
In 2016, Meng was elected president of the International Criminal Police Organization — a largely ceremonial position; the organization is run by its secretary-general — one of the most high-profile positions occupied by a Chinese citizen in the international bureaucracy. China exulted in the boost to its efforts to secure international legitimacy, and last year Beijing hosted the organization’s annual general assembly, with Xi addressing the gathering.
Second, there is the political nature of the allegations. The assertion that all officials, at home or abroad, must be loyal first to the Chinese Communist Party violates the long-standing practice that international bureaucrats give their first loyalty to their institution, that they try to be neutral and above nationality in their work. When Meng first went to Interpol, there were fears that he would try to corrupt the process by which a Red Notice, the Interpol arrest warrant, is issued and be used against political dissidents. The organization’s constitution prohibits interventions that are political and Meng respected that limit, saying that the organization’s neutrality was “its lifeline.”
“From now on, I have gone from sorrow and fear to the pursuit of truth, and responsibility toward history,” she said, speaking in Chinese. “For the husband whom I deeply love, for my young children, for the people of my motherland, for all the wives and children, so that their husbands and fathers will no longer disappear.”
International organizations simply should not pretend, as Interpol seems to be doing, that it is business as usual. Such a posture tarnishes their reputations, and it enables and encourages Beijing’s machinery of repression to inflict abuses worldwide as China’s power grows. Absent robust pushback, global institutions may soon offer no more protections from Chinese government abuses than in China itself.
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