Former Interpol chief 'held in China under new form of custody'

Meng Hongwei
Meng Hongwei appears to be the latest target of the Chinese ruling Communist party’s controversial anti-corruption campaign. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

Meng Hongwei, the former Interpol president being investigated for bribery in China, seems to have been detained under a new form of custody called “liuzhi”.

Liuzhi, or “retention in custody”, is used by the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), China’s new super-agency charged with investigating corruption throughout the government. Detainees can be denied access to legal counsel or families for as long as six months under liuzhi.

It is meant to be an improvement on the previous shuanggui system, a disciplinary process within the ruling Chinese Communist party known for the use of torture and other abuses. Under liuzhi, family members are supposed to be notified within 24 hours if a relative has been taken into custody.

Meng, a senior Chinese security official, appears to be the latest target in a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign that critics say is a cover for eliminating political figures disloyal to China’s president, Xi Jinping.

Meng usually lives in Lyon, where Interpol is based, with his family. He was reported missing by his wife after he flew from France to China last month.

On Monday, Chinese authorities accused him of bribery in a lengthy statement stressing the importance of the country’s “anti-corruption struggle” and the need for “absolute loyal political character”. On Sunday, authorities said he was in the custody of the NSC.

Rights advocates say there are few indications liuzhi will be much better than its forerunner.

The Chinese journalist Chen Jieren, who had accused a party official in Hunan province of corruption, has been detained since July by the NSC and denied access to his lawyer, according to Radio Free Asia.

In May, the driver of a low-ranking official in Fujian province died during interrogation after almost a month under liuzhi. When family members saw his body, his face was disfigured.

“Liuzhi is a very new system, but we can speculate pretty clearly [about] the kind of treatment people are subjected to,” said Michael Caster of Safeguard Defenders, a human rights NGO in Asia. “Prolonged sleep deprivation, forced malnourishment, stress positions, beatings, psychological abuse, threats to family members certainly, oftentimes leading to forced confessions.”

Meng’s wife, Grace, who made an emotional appeal to journalists at the weekend, told the Associated Press on Monday she had previously received a threatening phone call from agents.

Her last communication with her husband was on 25 September, when he sent her a message that read “wait for my call”, followed by a knife emoji. A week later, she received a call to her mobile phone while she was home in Lyon with her two young sons. “He said, ‘You listen but you don’t speak … We’ve come in two work teams, two work teams just for you,” she said, describing the call.

According to the AP, she said the man also told her: “We know where you are.” Meng’s wife and children are now under French protection.

Meng’s case is the most high-profile yet for the NSC, which was created in March to expand China’s anti-corruption drive to people and entities outside the Communist party, including government ministries, state-owned companies and people working in the public sector.

“Since its inauguration, however, the NSC has not nabbed any big ‘tigers’, so to speak,” said Dimitar Gueorguiev, assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, where he focuses on Chinese governance. “Meng’s arrest seems like a powerful demonstration of China’s commitment to rooting out corruption, even when it can cost them the directorship of an important international vehicle,” he said.

Speculation for the reasons behind Meng’s downfall ranges from his access to sensitive information after a long career at the public security ministry to his tenure at Interpol, when the organisation revoked an international alert for Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, which is critical of China’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang. While Meng’s exact whereabouts are still unclear, rights activists say his fate is not.

“The formula is simple,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for the NGO Human Rights Watch. “Like others forcibly disappeared before him, including human rights activists mistreated in custody by Meng’s public security ministry, he faces detention until he confesses under duress, an unfair trial, and then harsh imprisonment, possibly for many years.”