The disappearance and enforced resignation of Meng Hongwei, the Chinese secret policeman who headed Interpol until early October, has provoked a wave of handwringing about whether China is fit to lead international organizations. All of a sudden, deep thinkers have begun to doubt the wisdom of welcoming China into every nook and cranny of international society in the hopes that the delight of being welcomed would cause the Chinese Communist party to reform itself.
One of the helpful aspects of this latest Interpol scandal—following on the bad publicity it received over the past several years for acting as a cat’s-paw in the Kremlin’s pursuit of its political opponents—is that a few basic facts about Interpol are becoming more widely known. Interpol doesn’t have agents around the world, it doesn’t make arrests, and no one carrying an Interpol badge has ever broken down a door or tackled a fleeing suspect. Interpol is, in essence, just a bulletin board on which the police agencies of the world pin their wanted posters. As the Russian example has shown, it is definitely possible to abuse Interpol—but Interpol is not as Hollywood depicts it.
The concept of Interpol abuse is only meaningful because Interpol has standards that are supposed to govern how its systems are used. These standards are set out in its constitution, adopted in 1956, and in a raft of subsequent amendments, refinements, and supplementary rules—most notably, Interpol’s Rules on the Processing of Data. The most relevant of the standards is Article 3 of Interpol’s constitution, which, in the stilted language of the French bureaucrat, states that “it is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” In plain English, Interpol’s member nations—all 192 of them—are supposed to use it only to pursue ordinary criminals, not political ones.
Unfortunately, applying this standard is not quite as easy as stating it. There are edge cases, such as terrorism, which often has political motivations but is carried out by criminal means. But the broader difficulty is that Interpol can only regulate its own systems; it cannot police the conduct of its member nations. In other words, Interpol cannot stop Vladimir Putin from charging his political opponents with politicized crimes; it can only seek to ensure that those crimes are not pinned up on its bulletin board for everyone to see.
That bulletin board has a lot more on it than it used to. Interpol has a confusing welter of initiatives, databases, and communications, but two kinds are relevant here. There are Interpol’s colored notices—most famously, its Red Notice. Often described as an international arrest warrant, it is a formal request from an Interpol member nation that other member nations locate and detain, pending extradition, a named suspect for a described offense. Then there are “diffusions”—a confusing term of art for what are essentially email messages sent by an Interpol member nation to one or more other nations over Interpol’s network. Diffusions can contain the same information and the same requests as the colored notices. The difference is that they do not get routed via Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon, France.
As recently as 1998, Interpol published only 737 Red Notices. In 2017 it published 13,048. Information on the number of diffusions is harder to come by, but their growth has, if anything, been more explosive: In 2015, nations sent over 22,000 diffusions. All told, Interpol is responsible for something like 35,000 requests to detain annually. This growth is the direct result of the agency’s launch in 2003 of its I-24/7 electronic communications network, which allows police agencies around the world to connect directly to each other or to Interpol. This network improved the efficiency of Interpol’s operations, leading to a rapid increase in Red Notices and diffusions. And that, in turn, made abusing the system for political purposes much simpler—both because the network functions so smoothly and because the resulting flood of notices makes it easier to conceal the abusive ones. Interpol cannot hope to examine upwards of 13,000 Red Notice requests a year, and since it sees diffusions only after they are transmitted, it cannot screen them at all.
All of these difficulties are compounded by one further fact: Interpol treats all of its member nations as equally worthy of respect. This was illustrated by the way Interpol responded to Turkey’s request for 60,000 Red Notices on purported participants in or sympathizers with the July 2016 coup attempt. Under Interpol’s rules, Turkey’s action was clearly abusive—indeed, it was attempted abuse on a scale that dwarfs anything Russia or China have done. But after commendably blocking the Turkish requests, Interpol issued the mealy-mouthed statement that it “supports each and every one of its 190 members as part of security cooperation benefits.” In other words, not only does Interpol’s I-24/7 system facilitate abuse, but Interpol is systemically unwilling to acknowledge that some nations operate under a rule of law and others do not. This blindness is built into Interpol’s DNA: It presumes that all of its member nations are equal.
The fact is that they are not all equal. And that is what is at stake in Meng’s leadership of, and removal from, Interpol. The issue is not that by charging a Chinese national who happened to be the president of Interpol with a crime, Beijing has done something inherently wrong: If Meng were credibly accused of a genuine offense, his position should not have protected him. Nor is there any evidence that Interpol became more solicitous of China’s Red Notices after Meng took office in 2016. Indeed, by canceling an abusive Red Notice on Uighur activist Dolkun Isa in February 2018, which led to an angry outburst from Beijing, Interpol has if anything pushed back against Chinese abuses.
China is not commonly recognized as one of Interpol’s most abusive member states, but that may be because its victims don’t dare to complain about it for fear of what will happen to their families. China continues to be what it was before Meng took over: an assiduous abuser of Interpol, targeting both purportedly corrupt officials and dissidents, and coupling this with forced repatriation (others would call it kidnapping) and other forms of harassment, along with a relentless campaign against any Taiwanese participation in Interpol. Indeed, the manner of Meng’s removal only sharpens the contrast between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan: one an irresponsible bully that bars the gate, the other a mature democracy that deserves to be inside the fence. Just maybe, the fact that Beijing has made fools of every other member nation in Interpol will encourage a few of them to think twice about going along with Taiwan’s exclusion.
But that is likely too optimistic. When Interpol’s General Assembly, its one-nation, one-vote governing body, voted by a 3 to 1 margin to admit the Palestinian Authority to Interpol in 2017, it became all too obvious that a majority of Interpol member nations are uninterested in drawing any distinction between lawful governments and lawless regimes. Nor does Meng’s fall soften the folly that the General Assembly displayed in electing him, after a major Chinese lobbying campaign, as its president. It was as wrong to have a Chinese secret policeman heading Interpol as it is to have, as is currently the case, a Russian official with a history of facilitating Interpol abuse serving as Interpol’s vice-president for Europe. The best that can be said of Meng is that while he didn’t set out to make China abuse Interpol less, he doesn’t seem to have made the abuse any grosser than it already is.
It’s conceivable that Meng got the axe in part because Beijing thought he was going soft. A much more likely explanation is that he was a protégé of now-disgraced Zhou Yongkang, formerly head of the PRC’s central politics and law commission. As the South China Morning Post noted, Meng’s removal completes a reshaping of the state security apparatus, which is now dominated by allies of President Xi Jinping. Just as Vladimir Putin targeted Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia, in 2003 to make clear to other oligarchs what he expected by way of loyalty, Xi has eliminated Meng—who as president of Interpol was China’s highest-profile international official—to demonstrate that he will not be put off by international niceties in enforcing his political will.
That demonstration of political will is precisely the problem. Interpol rests on a distinction between common crime and political crime that the Chinese regime does not respect. Meng is predictably accused of corruption, and there is every likelihood that he is corrupt, if that word has any meaning inside the star chambers of the Chinese Communist party. But if Meng is corrupt, so is the entire Chinese government that raised him to power and now has pulled him down. Interpol is not set up to deal with a regime like Beijing’s, where the law is merely a means to an end, or like Putin’s, where the criminals run the shop. Interpol assumes that while its member governments might on occasion be political, they are not fundamentally lawless. But with regimes like Beijing’s or Moscow’s, abuses are not occasional: They are ad hominem. The only difference in Meng’s case is that, this time, Interpol itself is the victim of the abuse.
Interpol has seen all this before. That much-quoted Interpol constitution of 1956 was drafted because, in March 1950, 10 Czechoslovakian dissidents hijacked a plane and flew to West Germany, where they were granted political asylum. At the request of the Communist Czechoslovak government, Interpol published a Red Notice on the dissidents. In response, director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI to withdraw from Interpol. The loss of U.S. participation was such a disaster for Interpol that it drew up its 1956 constitution to entice the United States back in by making clear that Interpol would pursue only common criminals, not anti-Communist dissidents.
Today, the dissidents are on the run again, this time joined by any businessman, from Moscow to Caracas, who makes enough money and is enough of a nuisance to be worth expropriating. The problem with Interpol is not, thanks to Hoover, that it lacks good rules. The problem is that good rules need to be enforced, and for that, American and democratic leadership are necessary.
If such leadership is not forthcoming, Meng won’t be the last inconvenient man to disappear at China’s behest. I’m not crying for him: As a political policeman, he sent tens of thousands of people to whatever hell he’s currently inhabiting. But seeing Interpol reduced to desperately asking what the heck is going on as an authoritarian state bats it back and forth as a plaything is pathetic. Then there is the fact that by removing Meng, China has made it perfectly clear that it views Interpol as merely a means to an end—and that end is power, not law. Worst of all, though, there is this: A majority of Interpol’s member nations don’t agree with me. They agree with China.
This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard