Beijing’s forced disappearance of one of China’s most prominent international officials shows the government appears ready to sacrifice anything, including its international reputation, to safeguard the Chinese Communist Party.
Meng Hongwei, head of the international policing organization Interpol, vanished after he flew back to China in late September, only for Beijing to announce in recent days he was being held for corruption.
The first Chinese official to reach the top of Interpol, Meng’s appointment just two years ago had been seen as a victory for Beijing and was widely celebrated in state media.
“You’ve got the head of Interpol being arrested at home on corruption, so that’s pretty embarrassing,” Richard McGregor, senior fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, told CNN.
“Secondly it just displays, on a wide screen, all the problems with China’s domestic political system and how that plays out in the rest of the world when the two are lined up against each other.”
Unusually, the statement released by the Chinese government confirming Meng had been detained under suspicion of corruption didn’t just mention the charges. It also stressed the importance of loyalty to both Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Party’s leadership.
Michael Caster, human rights advocate with Safeguard Defenders, told CNN he found the wording of the Chinese statement “really alarming.”
“I think it’s very concerning (that) China thinks it can abduct and arbitrarily detain the sitting head of an international organization without serious consequences,” said Caster.
“Not only is it pointing out the supposed criminal violation, its … emphasizing that ultimately Meng Hongwei was serving at the discretion of the Communist Party, which is headed by Xi Jinping,” added Caster.
‘An extension of the party’
Meng’s disappearance is just the latest high-profile arrest in Xi’s long running anti-corruption campaign, now orchestrated by the powerful National Supervision Commission (NSC).
Top security officials, leading politicians and military generals have all fallen foul of anti-corruption inspectors, which was originally intended to capture both “tigers and flies” – members of the Party elite once considered untouchable, as well as regular Chinese citizens.
During Xi’s six-year tenure, it’s estimated over a million officials have been punished. Critics however have suggested that the campaign is simply another tool by which Xi can remove political opponents.
Officially legislated in March, the NSC is a strengthened version of the original Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), with sweeping terms of references which extend its disciplinary reach outside the Communist Party.
“The party is not responsive to the outside world and its only responsive internally. (Meng’s arrest) shows the NSC for what it is, an extension of the Party, not a government ministry which embodies greater legal protections,” McGregor said.
China rebuts Western criticism
Chinese state media tabloid Global Times objected strongly to Western reporting of Meng’s detention, saying foreign media had “refused to understand” Chinese law.
“The Western media’s brouhaha stems from their disrespect for Chinese law and misunderstanding of China’s anti-corruption campaign. Wherever China’s legal system differs from the West’s, they arrogantly regard such differences as flaws,” the editorial said.
But McGregor said while China was not alone in putting domestic matters ahead of international concerns, it was the Chinese government’s methods which raised warning signals.
“The issue here is not just domestic issues trumping everything else, but it’s the nature of the domestic politics, which are opaque and essentially unresponsive to outside pressures,” he said.
Caster said the new arrest, coming soon after the disappearance of famous actress Fan Bingbing, who vanished for weeks after questions emerged around possible tax evasion, shows no one is safe from the Communist Party’s reach.
“That China feels so emboldened to disappear even one of its most famous actresses … should be a real wake up call that anyone within China could be next,” Caster wrote from CNN in September.
Serving at Xi’s discretion
As Xi’s hold on power in China continues to tighten, complete obedience to the party and its leadership is being given even greater emphasis in Beijing.
Across the country, officials at all levels of government are encouraged to read and learn from Xi’s words, while the president even had a political theory added to China’s constitution.
Caster said the Chinese statement, calling for loyalty to Xi, suggested that international representatives of Beijing, even when appointed to neutral organizations, would be extensions of the Communist Party.
“People have been speculating and warning and pointing to these concerns for a very long time, but I think … (this) really drives those points home,” he said.
But despite the disquiet which China’s actions in arrest may have caused globally, there is little likelihood of long term consequences for Beijing’s actions.
“In the long term, other countries just have to live with China’s political system … There’s no way China is going to change its internal (politics) to accommodate the concerns of international organizations,” McGregor said.