Ng Weng Hoong
OnePacificNews, October 15 2018, Monday
A week after US President Donald Trump pushed through a new North America trade agreement, China announced the arrest of yet another senior official on suspicion of taking bribes. The events don’t seem related but Beijing’s handling of Meng Hongwei’s arrest will underline why reducing China’s involvement in the continent’s economy under the US Mexico Canada Agreement’s (USMCA) may not be as crazy and scary as it seems.
Mr Meng, a veteran of China’s security apparatus, was also Interpol’s president until he “disappeared” in China on September 25 after flying in from France. The following 12 days, his whereabouts were a mystery until the Chinese government announced his arrest on October 7, forcing his immediate resignation from Interpol and other official positions.
As the chief of police chiefs of 192 countries, Mr Meng could not even protect his own rights when he was detained for his alleged role in a bribery scandal. Beijing had kept an eerie silence despite requests from his wife, Grace, and Interpol for information about its suddenly “missing” president. The 64-year-old official was the first Chinese national to hold that prestigious position in the organisation’s 95-year-history.
From the safety of the French city of Lyon where Interpol is headquartered, Mrs Meng, pleaded at a press conference for the international community, not her own government, to protect him.
Fearing for her safety, she asked not to be photographed as she revealed her husband’s last message to her on social media was that of a knife image. She interpreted it as his warning that he was in danger. Mrs Meng, who along with the couple’s two boys are now under French police protection, has declared she has no confidence in the Chinese justice system.
When Beijing cannot be trusted to deal justly with its own law enforcers, it bolsters Mr Trump’s criticism that China is not a market economy and it doesn’t run on the rule of law.
The unexpected China threat
Since Xi Jinping became China’s President in 2013, there has been plenty of discussion about how his government might impact or threaten the global order.
The least expected is its growing habit of “disappearing” people for allegedly committing crimes or threatening the nation’s security. There’s a long and growing list of people recently taken, many literally snatched off the streets, for a wide range of alleged crimes. They include politicians, tycoons with international business empires, bookshop operators, publishers, writers, journalists, dissidents, academics, briefly, a movie star, and as many as one million members of the Uighur minority forced into re-education camps. Now, even law enforcers are not safe as one of their own has been given a taste of his own medicine.
Interpol is the latest to learn that Mr Xi’s enormous unchecked powers to arrest and detain people at will threatens the global operations of any large organisation with China dealings.
Interpol should be deeply embarrassed as human rights groups had warned the organisation when Mr Meng was elected to become its president in November 2016. Given his long service as China’s vice minister of public security with control over the secret police, he played a role in arresting dissidents and human rights activists, not just criminals. When Mrs Meng expressed her fears about her husband’s safety and the lack of justice in China, she was speaking with deep insider knowledge.
While the Interpol’s president post is symbolic, it did give a Chinese security official an international platform and access to the world’s network of police organisations. The start of Mr Meng’s four-year term coincided with Mr Xi’s intensified campaign to arrest anyone in China and around the world identified as a threat to the regime.
“The appointment of Meng Hongwei is alarming given China’s long-standing practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia Director, at the time of Meng’s election.
“It seems at odds with Interpol’s mandate to work in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Interpol was clearly not prepared for Mr Meng’s domestic political fortunes to have a bearing on its operations. It probably thought nothing of his once close association with Zhou Yongkang, a former rival and colleague of Mr Xi, who was sentenced in 2014 to life imprisonment for corruption offences.
The corporate world was given a huge warning early this year when Beijing abruptly took down CEFC Group’s Ye Jianming and Anbang Group’s Wu Xiaohui. Both tycoons immediately lost control of their global empires even though they could have helped Mr Xi strengthen his international credentials. Investors in their firms lost hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly more. The companies’ global counterparts have been left in the dark. As with Interpol and its predicament, Beijing doesn’t seem to care.
Mr Ye’s fate, still unknown, is politically significant as he was working on a deal at the time of his downfall that would have further boosted Sino-Russian relations. Russia is Mr Xi’s main strategic ally in their joint pushback against the West.
Neither CEFC nor the Chinese government have said much despite news reports that Mr Ye remains in detention. The Russian government was left in a quandary as he could not complete CEFC’s proposed US$9.1 billion purchase of a stake in Russian energy giant Rosneft along with other deals. CEFC’s Rosneft buy-in that Moscow approved only late last year forms a vital part of Russia’s plan to tap China for funds and market access to help develop Siberia’s hydrocarbon resources.
If China can do this to its closest ally, who is safe from its whimsical politics?
If powerful politicians can be so quickly taken down without due process, who is to bet against Xi Jinping himself going “missing” amid China’s on-going power struggles?
The CEFC and Interpol cases serve as the biggest warning yet of the unpredictable risks posed by the far-reaching applications and impacts of China’s laws, anti-corruption campaign, and power struggles.
Russia’s hard-nosed politicians and Interpol’s experienced law enforcers have both been made to look foolish in a matter of months. Canada has a good chance of being caught up in some of China’s future domestic power struggles were the two countries to become free-trade partners. In proposing USMCA, the US may have impinged on Canada’s sovereignty. But did the unpredictable Mr Trump just save Canada from an even more unpredictable China?