THE ELECTION of Meng Hongwei in 2016 to be president of Interpol was a prize for China, a signal of acceptance and legitimacy. Mr. Meng’s role was largely ceremonial at the international police coordinating agency, but Communist Party bosses must have been tickled when Interpol held its general assembly meeting last year in Beijing, with an address by President Xi Jinping, who has been driving China’s aggressive search for power and influence beyond its shores.
Mr. Meng rose to become a vice minister in China’s feared public-security apparatus, known for persecuting dissidents. China is not a state based on rule of law, and when Mr. Meng was put at the helm of Interpol, some human rights advocates worried he might attempt to insinuate China’s dirty practices into the police organization. Interpol is an international clearinghouse for police, based in Lyon, France, and its notices to arrest someone — the Red Notice and the less formal “diffusion” — have been abused by authoritarian governments to nab political dissidents.
Mr. Meng was not in a position to affect specific notices; Interpol is run by a secretary general, now Jürgen Stock of Germany. But it is noteworthy that, in February, Interpol canceled a Red Notice pushed by Beijing in pursuit of a persecuted Uighur dissident, Dolkun Isa, who fled China in the 1990s. Also, Interpol responded to complaints of abuse, installing new safeguards for Red Notices and giving individuals a channel to challenge them. The watchdog group Fair Trials has just published a report and scorecard on Interpol’s reforms, saying the agency has made promising first steps, although more are needed.
This is all the more reason Mr. Meng’s disappearance looks extremely odd, exposing the arbitrary and opaque methods of China’s leaders, who operate far outside any concepts of rule of law and due process. He returned to Beijing in late September. His worried wife reported to French police that she had not heard from him since Sept. 25. Interpol announced Oct. 7 it received his resignation, and the next day, China said he was being investigated on charges of bribery. Precisely why Mr. Meng ran afoul of China’s leaders is not known, but in the past few years, Mr. Xi has used an anti-corruption drive to strengthen his grip on power. Perhaps the Chinese leaders were unhappy that Mr. Meng did not subvert Interpol to their liking.
By its constitution, Interpol is committed to the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is prohibited from interventions that are political. Mr. Meng knew this and emphasized at last year’s general assembly in Beijing that Interpol’s neutrality “is its lifeline.” Yet Interpol accepted the loss of Mr. Meng with nary a protest, simply asking China for “clarification,” an embarrassing response from an organization dedicated to the rule of law. And China has badly tarnished its own ambitions at global leadership.