Beijing’s international image took a self-inflicted bruising with a secretive investigation into the former Chinese head of Interpol, highlighting its ruthless tactics even as it seeks global goodwill in a trade spat with the United States, analysts said.
The election of Meng Hongwei as head of Interpol in 2016 was a triumph for President Xi Jinping’s bid to burnish China’s international profile through leadership posts in prestigious global organisations.
But midway through his four-year term, Meng vanished after travelling to China from France, where Interpol is based. After days of silence, authorities accused him of taking bribes and he resigned.
The Chinese vice public security minister’s abrupt disappearance late last month caught Interpol off-guard, an embarrassing situation for an organisation whose mission is international police cooperation.
It was also a stark reminder to the world of the Communist Party’s harsh investigative tactics, which contrast with the due process and open court system afforded to suspects in democratic countries.
China has said that Meng’s fall from grace is evidence that no one is above the law. But critics who see Xi’s six-year anti-corruption campaign as a tool to root out his political enemies are sceptical.
“This will have a detrimental impact on China’s soft power,” said Willy Lam, politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It plays into the Americans’ hands, adding more fodder to US attacks against China and the lack of rule of law,” he said, referring to Vice President Mike Pence’s searing speech last week assailing China’s human rights record, foreign policies and trade practices.
Seemingly kept in the dark by China, French police opened an investigation into his disappearance and Interpol asked for a “clarification” from Beijing on Saturday.
But it was not until Monday that Chinese authorities revealed that Meng was being investigated for taking bribes, without providing details about the charges or his whereabouts.
In one ominous sign, several posts on meetings and activities Meng participated in over recent years disappeared from the public security ministry’s website Monday as an AFP reporter viewed them — effectively erasing him from the agency’s history.
Adding to the intrigue, his wife Grace Meng spoke with her face hidden from cameras in Lyon on Sunday, telling reporters she did not know what had happened to her husband and showing his last text message to her: a knife emoji signalling danger.
The organ investigating Meng, the National Supervisory Commission, can hold suspects for as long as six months without providing access to legal counsel.
Xi’s anti-graft campaign has punished more than one million officials, and is popular with citizens who are fed up with endemic corruption. But some analysts say it also enables the Chinese president to eliminate rivals.
One of the most powerful to fall was former security ministry chief Zhou Yongkang, who promoted Meng more than a decade ago and was sentenced to life in prison in 2014.
The public security ministry said Meng’s case shows “that no one is above the law” and underscores the need to “thoroughly eliminate the pernicious influence of Zhou Yongkang”.
The state-run Global Times cited Tuesday a professor from a Communist Party school as saying that Meng’s crimes might not be just related to corruption but that he could also have “jeopardised national security”.
Lam speculated that the anti-graft agency may have discovered something that sowed doubts about Meng’s allegiances, and “Xi needs absolute loyalty”.
Beijing’s handling of the case will make it harder for Chinese to take prominent spots at global bodies in the future, Lam said.
Bonnie Glaser, senior Asia adviser at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said international organisations “should think twice going forward before considering a Chinese candidate to be its head.”
“Unless Interpol presses for an open investigation and due process for Meng Hongwei, it is definitely going to be criticised. How can the world’s police organisation simply do nothing?”
But Cheng Xiaohe, an international relations professor at Renmin University, said that while the case “damages” China’s image, it also demonstrates that it “does not care too much about saving face in anti-corruption matters”.
It shows “regardless of what damage is done to China’s international image, the Chinese Communist Party and government will not be soft on corruption, and will punish those who deserve to be punished,” he said.
Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Monday that China would continue to act as a “responsible power” that will “play its necessary role in international affairs and multilateral organisations.”
But Meng’s contributions were scrubbed from the security ministry’s website, including a speech at an Interpol ceremony for fallen officers in March in which he hailed the “real heroes”.
“As the world’s largest police cooperative organisation,” he said, “Interpol has the responsibility and obligation to highlight the contribution of the police officers in public service, to remember their deeds and to comfort their families.”