The Head of Interpol Has Gone Missing and No One Knows Why

There's no indication as to when or whether he will be released.
Tuesday 16 October 2018
Almost 10 days after he went missing, the Chinese government confirmed his detention. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

When it comes to solving cases, crime shows often make things look much easier than they actually are. That being said, the speed with which we have access to information simplifies things to a point where, in some instances, cases that took years to solve, could be resolved in a matter of weeks, given the right resources.

International findings show that an average of 2.8 million people go missing worldwide every year. Some are found soon after they are gone, while many others never make it back. It is also found that such missing persons cases are more prevalent in third world countries, because of a lack of exposure to information and lax enforcement.

And where totalitarian regimes reign supreme, there’s no telling how many of these cases occur, only that they do with little transparency into why and how. It’s like a constant remake of Taken, except there’s no Liam Neeson talking about his very particular set of skills to hunt down the perpetrators. Why? Maybe because the kidnappers are also skilled and very difficult to apprehend, or maybe because they have titles like ‘minister’, ‘government agent’ and the like.

It’s possible is that those carrying out these activities are merely acting at the behest of someone else with more power and have therefore been given permission to perform such activities with impunity. But how long can these perpetrators get away with it? As it seems, the general public is taking note that something is amiss and is pointing out such disappearances, like that of actress Fan Bing Bing who went missing in June.

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A journalist holds the mobile phone of Grace Meng, the wife of the missing Interpol president Meng Hongwei, showing the last message exchanged with her husband. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

Is that what happened recently in China? The most recent high profile case of forced ‘disappearance’ is that of former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei, the first Chinese national to have held the position. A mystery from the get-go, the disappearance of this man has raised many questions, leaving his wife, Grace Meng, searching desperately for answers. When he did eventually communicate, he sent a cryptic text message which prompted a flurry of speculations, until the Chinese government came forth and said they had detained him as a result of his ‘offence’.

That statement should have answered the questions around the physical aspects of his disappearance, but questions still remain about the motive behind it. According to a report by South China Morning Post, Meng, who landed in China after leaving Lyon, France on 20 September, was taken in by the authorities upon arrival five days later. However, there has been no information as to why he decided to go back to China.

The build-up to the mystery began when his wife reported to the French police that she hadn’t heard from her husband since the day he left Lyon on 20 September, until she received a message on the same day (25 September) via Whatsapp. The message she received simply contained an emoji of a knife accompanied with a text which ominously said “Wait for my call”.

Obviously, this caused alarm and following her report to the police, Interpol decided to carry out its own investigations on the case. The French Interior Ministry had said that it was concerned about “unspecified threats” received by Grace Meng and had therefore placed the entire family under police protection. There was no elaboration on what the threats were and where they came from, though anybody could venture a pretty good guess.

Labelling the disappearance of Meng as “worrying”, the ministry further said that it was puzzled about the situation and that it was concerned about the threats. Following that statement, Interpol demanded the Chinese government to disclose details on his whereabouts.

Interpol then received Meng’s resignation which was made effective immediately. It’s difficult to not wonder about the coincidental timing of his resignation and the allegations by the Chinese government. Concurrent to the announcement by Interpol, Grace Meng conducted a press conference in Lyon saying that she was worried for the safety of her husband and that she felt like his “life was in danger”. After all, how many ways can you interpret a knife emoji?

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Grace Meng, wife of the missing Interpol chief Meng Hongwei, talks to journalists on October 7, 2018 in Lyon during a press conference during which she did not want her face to be shown. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

In an act of bravery, Meng told CNN that she decided to speak up for the sake of her own children as well as that of all the other children of China, speaking to a problem that was not isolated to her own. She added that she had not told her sons, twins aged seven about what had happened to their father and explained that she kept them away from the television so they did not find out. “Maybe they can feel something happened,” she said. When they notice her crying, she tells them she has a cold.

“I don’t want to break their hearts,” Meng said. “I’m very – you know my heart, you know my emotion. They (the Chinese authorities) like things under the table, in the dark room,” she said, perhaps speaking in figurative terms of the ‘dark room’.

CNN also reported that during the course of her interview, Meng received three calls, all of which she claims are from the Chinese consulate who she refuses to meet without being accompanied by a lawyer or international media. She has no idea whether she will see Meng Hongwei again but added that he was a man of integrity who strictly abided by the laws.

Meng saw no support from China – in an official statement from 8 October, the Chinese government made an explosive announcement that Meng, who also currently serves as the deputy minister of Public Security of China had taken bribes. It added that the police would form a task force to go after Meng’s associates and that he was to be blamed for his situation as he insisted on “doing things in his own way”.

Following this, the minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi convened a Communist Party committee which expressed unanimous support for Meng Hongwei to be probed. In a statement, he said Meng’s suspected corruption and violation of laws “gravely jeopardised” the party and the police. “Leaders from the ministry would like to reiterate that we would strictly enforce Communist Party discipline and steadfastly obey and carry out the party’s decisions and plans. There is no place for any negotiation or bargaining with the party,” said the statement.

We can be sure that Meng was not the first ‘disappearance’ and judging by how the government has responded to the situation, he is certainly not the last. Business Insider reported that since 2013, the number of missing people has steadily been increasing, with these cases often involving business tycoons. Many speculate that these tycoons allegedly committed crimes that have defrauded the government such as tax evasion and a failure to declare property. It’s alleged that the business figures were frequently reported missing after being approached by Chinese authorities to ostensibly aid in an investigation of some variety. Once they leave, they are then never seen again.

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The Chinese government has been on an anti-corruption sweep since 2013. Photo: AFP

A major factor that underpins all these disappearances is the Chinese government’s supposed anti-corruption battle. Since 2013, under the charge of Premier Xi Jinping and anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan, a number of China’s leading businessmen have been questioned under suspicion of corruption.

The Chinese authorities are intent on establishing a society where authority is respected and one that operates in accordance with the highest ideals of morality and upstanding behaviour. But at what cost and to what measures? It is no coincidence that there are echoes of George Orwell’s 1984, where a step out of line can get you eliminated for good.

Related: Where is Fan Bing Bing?