Probe of Interpol president will not just hurt China

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 11, 2018.
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THE last message that now former Interpol president Meng Hongwei sent to his wife was an emoji depicting a knife. Soon after, he disappeared into China’s feared and opaque ministry of public security, the subject of a corruption investigation about which no details have been revealed. The disappearance is a blow to Meng’s family, Interpol and China’s aspirations to lead similar international organisations in the future.

That is bad enough. But the impact of China’s power play will be even more far-reaching. Chinese participation in global organisations is not just a status-enhancing honour. It is a necessity: Solving international problems of all sorts will be harder if the world’s second-largest economy does not play a leading role in addressing them. If global institutions can no longer trust that Chinese domestic politics won’t interfere with their work — and feel secure appointing Chinese to top positions — their legitimacy and effectiveness will inevitably suffer.

Prior to Meng’s detention, the case for greater Chinese influence in such institutions seemed clear-cut. In the space of 40 years, China has evolved from economic, military and cultural afterthought into a juggernaut. As its status has grown, so has the ruling Communist Party’s desire to play a greater role in setting global standards. For years, the World Bank has been a particular focus, with Chinese leaders arguing that the institution’s voting structure did not sufficiently recognise China’s economic status or the voices of other developing countries. In 2016, the World Bank signalled its agreement by appointing Yang Shaolin, a Chinese national, to be its second-in-command.

The ascent of Chinese nationals within other, usually less prominent, organisations has been driven as much by practical needs as by China’s desire for recognition. In 2015, for example, the 192 member states of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations agency that sets aviation standards and norms, elected Liu Fang, a Chinese national, to be its secretary-general. That’s no accident. China’s fast-growing commercial aviation sector is on track to surpass that of America and become the world’s biggest around 2022. Clearly the ICAO and the global aviation industry benefit from having a leader connected to the region where aviation is evolving most quickly.

The same logic is even stronger in the case of the World Health Organization (WHO). During the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, a lack of cooperation, transparency and trust between Chinese public health officials and the WHO played a key role in turning the epidemic into a global threat. Efforts to bridge those gaps accelerated in 2006 with the ascension of Hong Kong native Dr Margaret Chan to lead the organisation. The day after she was elected, China sent long-sought bird flu samples to the US Centers for Disease Control, and under her tenure global information- and sample-sharing agreements were forged. It is unlikely that a non-Chinese leader would have had the same success.

Even Meng’s 2016 election as Interpol president made sense. Growth in China has spurred greater economic integration both within the Asia-Pacific and globally. It has also been accompanied by an explosion of transnational crime, including the trafficking of opiates, counterfeit products, wildlife and people, as well as an epidemic of phone scams with Chinese roots.

China’s rise has effectively carved out new corridors for crime — as well as new opportunities for international information-sharing and cooperation. Interpol’s membership recognised it would be much easier to take advantage of those opportunities if its leadership included a senior Chinese official with connections to Beijing and its security bureaucracy.

There were warning signs even then, of course. Human rights advocates raised concerns that China would use Meng’s appointment to harass and arrest dissidents abroad. Throughout his career, Meng was adamant that domestic political prerogatives were his first priority. During his four-year tenure as head of China’s Libya-bound peacekeeping force, he told every batch of departing officers that they should “put politics first, party organisation first and ideological work first”. There’s some irony in the fact that Meng fell victim to those same domestic political pressures.

Yet by abducting him without any notice to Interpol (much less a public accounting of charges), China has clearly demonstrated its lack of respect for international standards of governance. The damage will be lasting. Global organisations will be understandably wary of putting another Chinese into a leadership position, and the Chinese government — rarely willing to admit a wrong — is unlikely to offer assurances that it will respect international norms in the future. That’s a setback for China, and a tragedy for international organisations that depend on global cooperation to manage or solve issues that impact us all. — Bloomberg