Sophie Richardson: China disappeared Interpol’s chief. The world can’t pretend it’s business as usual

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.

Meng’s disappearance joins other Chinese government human rights violations that have garnered recent headlines: “Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize laureate imprisoned in China, dies at 61”; “China Has Detained Up to a Million Muslims”; “Where is Fan Bingbing? The Chinese star has mysteriously disappeared.”

Meng, who is also a vice minister in China’s Ministry of Public Security, traveled to China from his posting in Lyon, France, on Sept. 25. After about a week of not being able to reach him, Meng’s frantic wife, Grace, approached French police. It was not until Oct. 7 — nearly two weeks later — that Chinese authorities acknowledged they had detained him. Meng was being investigated for corruption, they said; no information regarding his whereabouts was provided.

Meng rose to power through the system that is now poised to mete out punishment to him. He is likely being held in “liuzhi,” a form of secret detention effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party under which detainees are held incommunicado — without access to lawyers or relatives — for up to six months.

The right to a fair trial is elusive even for ordinary criminal suspects in China. In high-profile, political cases such as Meng’s, there are no rights — no real opportunity to contest one’s detention or to present a legal defense before an impartial court. Meng can expect to be held until he is coerced into confessing, then given a summary trial and handed a harsh prison sentence.

However, don’t expect Meng ever to be held accountable for the countless people, including rights activists, whose arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment he oversaw in China’s Ministry of Public Security.

Xi’s heavy-handed treatment of Meng will no doubt have many senior Chinese officials looking over their shoulders. But it should also raise concerns at global institutions where high-level Chinese officials already have been installed in powerful positions. The institutions include the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the International Court of Justice.

Interpol, whose 192 member countries elected Meng as president in 2016, appears to have been blindsided. It shouldn’t have been, given Xi’s deeply politicized corruption campaign and Meng’s role in the state’s security apparatus — any government official is vulnerable in Xi’s China.

When news of Meng’s disappearance broke on Oct. 5, Interpol blandly stated, “This is a matter for the relevant authorities in both France and China,” evincing no concern about his treatment. Two days later, Interpol said it had “received the resignation of Mr. Meng Hongwei as president of Interpol with immediate effect,” without explaining why it had accepted as voluntary a resignation from someone in secret detention.

Interpol claims to promote sound law enforcement policies and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but its position regarding China casts doubt on that claim. In recent years, the organization has allowed Beijing to abuse Interpol’s Red Notice provisions by which member states are notified that another member is seeking the arrest of one of its citizens. Red Notices are intended for international fugitives from criminal justice, yet Interpol has uncritically accepted Beijing’s requests for aid in pursuing Chinese activists around the world, including Dolkun Isa in Germany and Wang Zaigang in the United States.Ultimately, neither was sent back to China, and to Beijing’s dismay, Interpol finally deleted the Red Notice against Isa in February. Other authoritarian governments abuse Red Notices as well.

Now comes the organization’s apparent indifference to the detention of its own president. Interpol has a tough road ahead to restore its credibility.

With Xi’s authoritarian aspirations and abusive tactics more apparent than ever, how should international organizations that value the rule of law and human rights respond? A blanket ban on leadership by anyone connected with the Chinese government is not the answer, but the groups should be prepared to act immediately on behalf of any Chinese member of their organization who is caught in the maw of the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, they should re-evaluate vetting procedures to ensure that candidates do not have the sort of dismal human rights record that Meng brought to Interpol.

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.

Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch. She wrote this column for the Washington Post.


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