The International Criminal Police Organisation, better known as Interpol, specialises in manhunts, issuing “red notices” for wanted criminals and “yellow notices” for missing persons.
But even the 95 year-old agency was stumped in early October, when its own head, a senior policeman named Meng Hongwei, went missing on a trip back to his homeland in China.
The plot thickened when Meng’s wife Grace told a press conference in Lyon, where Interpol is based, that he had sent her a WhatsApp message with the symbol of a dagger, which she took to mean that he was in danger.
Only after that did the Chinese authorities announce, late on October 7, that Meng was actually in their detention, under investigation by an anti-corruption agency for unspecified “unlawful activities”.
Meng, who was also a vice minister of public security, is the latest of hundreds of senior officials to be ensnared in an anti-graft campaign launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.
What makes his case unusual is his position as president of a prominent international agency – and one designed to fight crime to boot.
Also unusual was his wife’s decision to speak out. “He has disappeared for so long and nobody has given me any information or told me where he has gone. This is very common now in China,” she told the Associated Press in an interview. “I feel like I have a responsibility to stand up.”
China’s Ministry of Public Security then said in a statement on October 8 that its Communist Party committee met early that morning to denounce Meng and pledge “resolute support” for Xi.
Meng’s detention was “the result of his insistence on doing things in his own way and bringing trouble through his own actions,” the statement said.
It also cited the need to “eliminate the pernicious influence” of Zhou Yongkang, China’s former domestic security chief, who was jailed for life for corruption and abuse of power in 2015.
That raised eyebrows among many China watchers as Xi had previously accused Zhou and other senior officials of political conspiracies to seize power.
The Chinese authorities have provided no evidence of collusion between Meng and Zhou, but the local media has reported that Meng was appointed vice minister of public security in 2004, when Zhou headed the ministry.
Still, some commentators have pointed out that Xi was unlikely to have allowed Meng to become the top man at Interpol if there was any suspicion that he conspired with Zhou.
Whatever the reason for Meng’s detention, the manner of his arrest has highlighted the unpredictable ways in which Beijing handles anti-corruption cases. And it must surely raise concerns about the risks of letting Chinese officials lead other international organisations in future as well.
Meng, 64, was the first Chinese national to head Interpol and his appointment in 2016 was portrayed by some as an important step in showing that the Chinese were taking on more leadership roles in world affairs. Now, Meng’s case shows that the priorities of the Party trump all else – even when it threatens China’s prestige abroad.
Interpol’s president doesn’t handle day-to-day affairs but acts as a steward in ensuring that the organisation reflects its 192 member states’ goals. And yet, Chinese authorities did not inform Interpol what was going on for several days after Meng’s detention. Nor was his wife told — even though the family of a detained suspect should typically be informed within 24 hours, according to Chinese law.
Grace Meng first raised the alarm with French authorities around October 4, saying she had lost contact with her husband shortly after he flew back to China in late September. French officials confirmed that he had arrived in China, but were unable to establish his latest whereabouts. As news of his disappearance spread, Interpol was forced to take the embarrassing step of issuing a statement saying it had asked China for information.
The agency “looks forward to an official response from China’s authorities to address concerns over the president’s well-being,” it said.
The next day, his wife held an emotional press conference, in which she turned her back to reporters and asked them not to show images of her face in order to protect herself and her children.
In another unorthodox move for a family member of an official accused of corruption, she said she believed her husband was innocent and had been targeted for political reasons, the Associated Press reported.
“I have gone from sorrow and fear to the pursuit of truth, justice and responsibility toward history,” she said.
After her husband’s detention was confirmed, Meng’s wife said she had been contacted repeatedly by Chinese officials asking to meet her, and that one had warned her that they were coming to get her. “You listen but you don’t speak. We’ve come in two work teams, two work teams just for you,” she reported him as saying.
French authorities say she and her children are now under police protection.
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