WASHINGTON — The world’s largest international police organization usually spends its time searching for missing or wanted people. This time, the mystery at Interpol is a bit more personal: its own president went missing.
Meng Hongwei, a Chinese vice minister of public security who was elected president of Interpol from 2016 to 2020, has not been seen or heard from by his wife and children since he left their home in Lyon, France, where Interpol is based, on September 29 on a trip to his native China.
“We are aware of media reports in connection with the alleged disappearance of Interpol President Meng Hongwei. This is a matter for the relevant authorities in both France and China,” the organization said in a statement, adding that it would not comment further.
But it also pointed out that the secretary-general of the 192-nation organization, not the president, is responsible for overseeing its daily operations — an apparent effort to reassure the world’s policing communities that the organization is not hamstrung by the unusual occurrence.
His wife alerted the police in Lyon and an investigation began into his apparent disappearance. Some theories include the possibility that Meng offended Chinese authorities and was detained.
The South China Morning Post reported he was being held for investigation by Chinese authorities, having been taking away for questioning as soon as his airliner landed in China. But it was not yet clear why the authorities would want to investigate Meng or exactly where he was being held.
Under China’s supervision law, the newspaper reported, a suspect’s family and employer must be notified within 24 hours of a detention except in cases where it would hinder an investigation. It appears Meng’s wife was not informed.
Meng has almost 40 years of experience in criminal justice and policing related to legal institutions, narcotics control, counter-terrorism, border control, immigration and international cooperation, according to Interpol.
He also serves as head of Interpol’s National Central Bureau of China and as director-general of the China Coast Guard. He held several previous positions in China’s public security ministry, including director of the patrol police division and director-general of traffic control department.
— INTERPOL (@INTERPOL_HQ) October 5, 2018
A pattern of enforced disappearances
Meng also might have been targeted for a high-profile “confession” in the name of anti-corruption. In April, China announced he was no longer on the Communist Party committee that oversees his Chinese ministry.
Hundreds of Chinese citizens have vanished since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013 and the ruling Communist Party stepped up an alleged anti-corruption campaign using disappearances often followed by high-profile confessions.
The most recent involved China’s most famous actress, Fan Bingbing, who disappeared from public view four months ago. The government accused her of evading millions of dollars in taxes and, in a statement released to state media earlier this week, used the case as a warning to others in television and film.
Fan was fined some US$70 million in taxes and penalties for underreported earnings. She surfaced for the first time this week to post on China’s Sina Weibo website for microblogging that she felt “shamed and guilty for what I have done.”
Human rights groups, activists and international organizations have long campaigned against what they call the Chinese government’s use of enforced disappearances in its crackdown on human rights.
Human Rights Watch documented the use of enforced disappearances against lawyers, civil society activists, bloggers, and other human rights defenders, and its use in Tibetan areas and the remote Xinjiang province. The detainees have also included billionaire business titans and book publishers in cases that involve “state subversion” or take place under the guise of aiding investigations.
“Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law. Even short-term secret detentions can qualify as enforced disappearances,” the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said in 2011 about a wave of alleged such incidents in China.
“There can never be an excuse to disappear people, especially when those persons are peacefully expressing their dissent with the Government of their country,” it said.