OPINION: Meng Hongwei's Disappearance Reveals an Ugly Internal Truth

OPINION: Meng Hongwei's Disappearance Reveals an Ugly Internal Truth
Credit: Reuters / Jeff Pachoud

What you need to know

It's a glimpse into the murky political waters where Beijing thrives at controlling outcomes – and in which Meng himself was not simply a victim.

Interpol President Meng Hongwei vanished into thin air in October, just short of the halfway point of his first term. He disappeared not because of terrorism or kidnappers, but due to the Chinese Communist regime.

Beijing’s ability to pluck Meng from his position indicates that it has power far eclipsing that of Interpol. Simply put, this is awe-inspiring.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likely did not expect his wife Grace Meng, who lived in France, to report her husband’s disappearance to the police and hold a press conference in Lyon. Standing with her back to the press, Grace Meng said in a trembling voice she had shed her fear and become determined to seek truth and justice.

Credit: AP / John Leicester
Grace Meng, the wife of former Interpol President Meng Hongwei, sits with her back to reporters in a hotel lobby in Lyon, France on Oct. 7, 2018.

“From now on, I have turned from grief and fear to pursuing truth, justice and historical responsibility,” she said. “For my beloved husband, for my little children, for Chinese people, for all mothers and children whose husbands or fathers would no longer disappear.”

No more than an hour after Grace Meng’s remarks, an ambiguous news item appeared on the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) website, reading: “Meng Hongwei, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Public Security, is suspected of breaking the law and [is] currently under investigation by CCDI.”

This news verified a claim originating from the South China Morning Post, owned by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, that Meng was being investigated on suspicion of political corruption.

The next day, China’s Ministry of Public Security made an announcement on its official website, which included the following: “The investigation against Meng Hongwei taking bribes and suspected violations of law is very timely, absolutely correct and rather wise.”

The rhetoric used in this announcement is intriguing, showing Meng’s case is not as simple as alleged corruption. Instead, the case likely has an unmeasurably deep political background. Meng is probably not another Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief who was convicted of numerous corruption charges in June 2015. Beijing’s willingness to risk international backlash to take him down hints that Meng may have been part of a political conspiracy in opposition to President Xi Jinping.

However, just like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely sending secret agents to torture and kill dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the CCP’s use of an illegal approach to “disappear” Meng Hongwei sparked an international uproar.

Australian National University criminology professor Roderic Broadhurst said Meng’s disappearance has concerned the Interpol department which collaborates with China. Ultimately, this is likely to influence China’s collaboration in legal aid with other countries. “This incident came about in a strange way,” said Broadhurst, but China likely will ignore the political effects it caused. “This entails consequences, but I guess they think this is the cost worth paying.”

In other words, it is impossible Beijing did not know this kind of approach would trigger such a large reaction. But due to its concern with regime stability, China seemingly disregarded all alternate options – peremptoriness is a major characteristic of Xi Jinping’s regime.

Meng, 64, was elected to a four-year term as president of Interpol in November 2016. He is the deputy minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security, as well as the first Chinese citizen to serve as Interpol’s president. At the time, his appointment sparked protests from Western human rights organizations and advocates because Meng had direct relations with several human rights infringement incidents. This incident marked China’s widened extension of “sharp power”: When the Chinese government attempts to expand its international influence, it uses approaches like economic aid to actively intervene and gradually gain control over sovereign states and important international organizations.

Credit: Depositphotos
Meng Hongwei had his own role to play in China's clampdown on human rights and freedom of expression.

Now that the CCP has caused Meng Hongwei to disappear into thin air, the credibility of Interpol has plummeted. It even has had problems with normal operations. The price that China has to pay is: Henceforth, if other international organizations would like to appoint Chinese citizens as their leaders, they will have no choice but to weigh the serious consequences this might cause. What if this leader once again becomes the victim of China’s internal power struggles?

Some Chinese netizens tweeted: “CCP currently does not care about anything anymore and is willfully playing mafia politics.” “Even Interpol’s president was so easily ‘disappeared’ after returning to China, let alone ordinary people. China is truly a terrifying country.” “As the deputy minister of CCP’s Ministry of Public Security, he has made many people [disappear]. It is eventually he that has been made missing.”

Those who know a little about China’s national condition probably wouldn’t sympathize too much with Meng Hongwei and his wife. This is the inevitable consequence of a wrongdoer: Meng chose the wrong team and was inevitably thrown overboard.

How could Meng ever stay afloat in Xi’s China?

Xi Jinping used extreme measures to capture Meng Hongwei. This may be because China’s internal power struggles had reached a white-hot level. Another reason for this, however, was to create a scary atmosphere permeating every corner of the Chinese society. As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who studies the origin of totalitarianism, said: “If the rule of law is the core of non-totalitarian government and a lack thereof is the core of a totalitarian government, fear is the core of totalitarian governance. Under the rule of totalitarianism, all of the traditions, values, customs, rule of law and political groups would be destructed, and behaviors of either individuals or organizations would fall under the control of fear.” Arendt continues to point out how, inside a totalitarian society, rulers often wield the power of fear by killing one to deter many others.

Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin all used the “threatening” approach internally. On one hand, dissidents were purged in large numbers. On the other, the majority of the population were thus intimidated. People would often live on tenterhooks and unquestioningly obey authorities.

Credit: CC0
'Il Duce' (L) and Hitler were no strangers to ruling with fear.

To maintain internal fear, there must be a strong and effective internal monitoring team. This is why the Gestapo, the KGB, and the secret police came into being in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, respectively.

In this system, Meng Hongwei had always been the perpetrator with blood on his hands for many years, and overnight, he was reduced to a victim. The Soviet Union’s Nikolai Yezhov, Genrikh Yagoda and Lavrentiy Beria are all examples of this from the past.

Some people have called for ensuring the human rights of Meng Hongwei and his wife. Some also praised Meng for how wise his sending a knife emoji via text to his wife, and how brave his wife was for coming forward. This kind of compliment, however, misses a broader context.

Meng and his wife benefited from being within the orbit of the CCP and China’s extreme upper class. Grace Meng served as a nominal chairperson for the Bank of Beijing, Hong Kong SMCI Co., and other companies, receiving several annual salaries in the hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars. In 2005, Meng bought his wife several properties in Beijing which are now worth over US$10 million combined, along with a 270-square-meter house with a 4,000-square-meter garden in Europe. Like many high-ranking Chinese officials, Meng and his wife sent their children abroad to study to France.

After Meng’s disappearance, Grace Meng lashed out at the “cruel” and “dirty” Chinese government for its apparent treatment of her husband. However, when journalists asked her for her thoughts on Liu Xia, the widow of the late Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo who died in Chinese custody in 2016, Meng first asked in reply: “Who is Liu Xia?” She then said she only focused on looking after her children.

Grace Meng may very well have been unfamiliar with the travails of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, who was herself subjected to house arrest in Beijing for nearly eight years before being surprisingly freed in July 2018, when she was allowed to travel to Germany. It is possible she and her husband were focused on their duties at hand – with remaining loyal to their homeland.

But the disappearance of Meng does not highlight a symbol of martyrdom, nor does it completely cast Meng as a villain within a cruel game of internal CCP party politics – although we certainly must question his own motives. More than anything, however, it allows a glimpse into the complex set of compromises all high-ranking Chinese officials must make in order to retain high profile positions at home or abroad.

Earlier this year, actress Fan Bingbing was detained over accusations of tax evasion. China has also begun using exit bans to disallow citizens of other countries from leaving; the country is currently holding two U.S. citizens in an attempt to force their father, Liu Changming, to return to China to face fraud charges. Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲), of course, remains imprisoned for what China calls “subversion.” Under Xi, China has expanded its mechanisms of controlling the movement and speech of anyone it considers to be Chinese.

Meng Hongwei likely helped engineer much of the current Chinese regime of control. We do not know the extent of his role, or what got him on Xi Jinping’s bad side. We know, however, that he is somewhere in the gray area between “innocent” and “guilty” – and that, when matters are not clearly black or white, China excels in engineering outcomes to its liking.

Credit: Viki / Screenshot
The political ripping and clawing within the CCP is a real-life version of the popular TV drama 'Story of Yanxi Palace.'

And ultimately, Meng and his wife, along with Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership, are complicit in Chinese being deprived of their human rights, consistently putting their own political infighting ahead of the good of Chinese society. What happens in Zhongnanhai, it can be said, is nothing but another version of the high drama of “Story of Yanxi Palace.”

Read Next: After Fan Bingbing & Meng Hongwei, Nobody Is Safe in Xi Jinping's China

This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens and can be found here.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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