Head of Interpol disappears on home visit, and eyes turn towards China

Interpol president Meng Hongwei mysteriously disappeared after recently returning to China. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - When a high-ranking official in China's public security system was elected president of Interpol in 2016, leaders in Beijing rejoiced.

The promotion lent respectability to China's notoriously opaque and arbitrary criminal justice system.

But now that same official, Mr Meng Hongwei, 64, has himself mysteriously disappeared, after recently returning to China. Even the country's most internationally prominent police officer, it seems, can vanish without an official murmur from Beijing.

No one seems to know where Mr Meng is or why he suddenly disappeared, even though he leads an organisation that serves as a kind of United Nations for the world's police forces.

Interpol issued a cryptic statement on Friday (Oct 5). His wife, who is living in France, where Interpol has its headquarters, reported him missing on Thursday evening after she did not hear from him upon his arrival in China. The French authorities have opened an investigation.

Even with so much unknown, questions are already arising about whether Mr Meng is under investigation by the Chinese authorities, and whether he was snatched away by security agents without notice.

If so, his sudden and mysterious disappearance threatens to cloud China's image, demonstrating that even the most prominent official of an international police organisation is vulnerable.

"If Meng Hongwei has disappeared in China, then of course the most likely reason is an anti-corruption investigation," Mr Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party journal who now writes commentaries on Chinese politics, said in a telephone interview.

"Internationally, he is president of Interpol, but in the eyes of the Chinese authorities he is first of all Chinese, and they wouldn't think too much about his international prominence," Mr Deng added. "This is the new normal."

The Chinese authorities had already sent an emphatic message earlier this week that international prominence was no shield for Chinese citizens.

Two days before it became known that Mr Meng had apparently disappeared, Chinese state media reported that Fan Bingbing, a Chinese actress who had disappeared for four months, had been cooperating with the tax authorities, who fined her nearly US$70 million (S$96.79 million) in unpaid taxes and penalties.

Fan had appeared in the Iron Man franchise and other big Hollywood spectacles.

Since Mr Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, he has taken the drive against graft high into the political elite.

This year, China established an anti-corruption investigation agency with wide powers to secretly detain officials suspected of wrongdoing.

Chinese officials under investigation often disappear for weeks or even months before the government says anything about their fate.

If Mr Meng has been detained, his case may signal that the tactic is continuing.

In 2013, Mr Li Dongsheng, another vice-minister of public security, was investigated for corruption and was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking bribes.

Last month, China's anti-corruption agency announced that it was investigating Mr Nur Bekri, one of the few senior Chinese officials from the Uighur ethnic minority. He is a former governor of Xinjiang region in north-west China and most recently was director of the National Energy Administration.

Dr Andrew Wedeman, a political scientist at Georgia State University who studies corruption in China, said that Mr Xi's anti-corruption drive appeared to have cooled from a peak in 2015, but nonetheless was still taking down "tigers" - the Chinese phrase for fallen senior officials.

"By my count, this year they have taken down 17 'tigers' thus far - Meng would be tiger No. 18," Mr Wedeman said by e-mail.

"My sense is that the active phase of the crackdown is now over and we are back to more routine levels. The tiger hunt is, however, definitely still ongoing."

In France, investigators learned of Mr Meng's disappearance when his wife went to police in Lyon on Thursday evening and explained that she not heard from her husband since his arrival in China, according to an official close to the investigation, who insisted on anonymity and was not authorised to comment publicly.

Mr Meng's wife also told police that she had received threats by telephone and on social media, and the French authorities have provided her with police protection, Agence France-Presse reported.

In a statement, Interpol, the main organisation for global police cooperation, said that it was "aware of media reports in connection with the alleged disappearance" of Mr Meng.

"This is a matter for the relevant authorities in both France and China," the statement said.

Unlike Interpol's secretary-general, Mr Jürgen Stock, who directly oversees the group's daily work of police cooperation and carries out any decisions it makes, Mr Meng had a less hands-on and more ceremonial role.

As president, Mr Meng presides at meetings and conferences, and sometimes represented the organisation during trips abroad.

After Mr Meng was elected by Interpol's general assembly in 2016, he was celebrated by China's state-run news media as confirming that the country was winning international recognition and respect under President Xi.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Lu Kang, said at the time that Mr Meng's elevation had "received a positive response from the broad numbers of member countries" of Interpol.

"China has not been a member of Interpol for long, and Meng Hongwei's election as its president is undoubtedly related to China's increasingly important role in recent years in protecting regional and global security," said a Chinese state newspaper, Beijing Youth Daily.

"The law enforcement capacities and qualities demonstrated by China's law enforcement authorities have won broad praise across the world."

Just over a year ago, Mr Meng presided over a general assembly of Interpol members in Beijing. President Xi gave the opening speech, praising the organisation and declaring that "China is willing to share its experience in security governance with every country in the world", China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported.

Mr Meng has remained a vice-minister of China's Ministry of Public Security while he serves as president of Interpol, and a page describing his background and activities remained on the ministry's website on Friday.

China is in the middle of a week-long National Day vacation, and calls to the ministry's media office on Friday evening were not answered.

In April, the ministry disclosed that Mr Meng was no longer a member of the Communist Party committee that oversees the ministry, a step that sparked speculation on overseas Chinese websites that he could be in trouble.

But official Chinese news media have not levelled any accusations against Mr Meng, and as recently as August, he continued to receive official visitors in Beijing.

After news of Mr Meng's disappearance spread, The South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper published in Hong Kong, cited an unnamed source in reporting that he had been taken away after arriving in China and was under investigation.

Mr Meng is scheduled to step down as president of Interpol in 2020. His appointment, though celebrated in China, had also ignited controversy, with critics arguing that it would help China issue international arrest warrants to target political enemies.

Mr Meng previously served as head of the Chinese Public Security Ministry's traffic control department, and he was a deputy director of China's oceanic administration.

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