Why do certain individual victims of tyrannical regimes become cause célèbres, worthy of dramatically altering U.S. foreign policy, while others disappear into the ether?
This question comes to mind in light of the curious case of Meng Hongwei. You would be forgiven if this is the first you are reading his name, which has been all but lost amid the feverish media coverage of the disappearance and premeditated murder of Islamist Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government henchmen. But concurrent with the Khashoggi affair, Meng, the president of Interpol, also disappeared, and may have succumbed to a similarly grim fate at the hands of Chinese henchmen.
Let me repeat that: The president of Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, disappeared. Meng left his home in France on Sept. 25 for a trip concluding in China. Meng has not been seen or heard from since, save for reportedly texting his wife an ominous emoji of a knife.
Only two weeks later did we receive the Chinese authority’s version of what transpired. The Chinese Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) — as draconian a bureaucracy as it sounds — released a one-line statement announcing that Meng was being detained under “suspicion of violating the law,” purportedly for taking bribes. Interpol received a statement saying Meng would be resigning as president immediately, and he was summarily replaced.
His wife claims Chinese individuals have threatened her as well. She believes Meng may be dead, although Chinese authorities claim to be holding a letter of his, addressed to her, as evidence he is alive. Meng claims unnamed parties have asked to deliver the letter to her alone, something she has understandably refused.
There are a number of parallels between Meng and Khashoggi, which makes it all the more interesting that the former’s disappearance caused an international uproar, while the latter’s disappearance has been largely disappeared. For one, Meng and Khashoggi were both prominent figures with deep ties at the highest ranks of the authoritarian regimes for which they served.
Meng is not just another one of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese held in “Re-education through Labor” camps, or behind bars for committing crimes like practicing one’s faith or dissenting from the state religion of Communism. He was a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for more than 40 years, working his way up through the “law enforcement” ranks.
For his loyal work for the CCP, he rose to the senior position of Chinese vice-minister of public security, where he had been serving since 2004, and head of the China Coast Guard, a position to which he was named in 2013. Meng was elected president of Interpol in 2016. The first such president from China, this role put Meng in a powerful seat to do the bidding of Xi Jinping’s regime. By way of Interpol, Beijing is able to pursue its political foes abroad through the issuance of “red notices,” de facto arrest warrants.
Khashoggi was a close confidante of and spokesman for the former head of Saudi intelligence and later ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s in London, and the United States, Prince Turki bin Faisal. Khashoggi obtained this role following a career editing Saudi-approved papers, and reportedly serving as an intermediary between the Saudi intelligence services on behalf of the House of Saud and Osama bin Laden, whom he had interviewed several times. As a former colleague described him, Khashoggi was a “regime insider” who “mixed with British, U.S., and Saudi intelligence officials.”
Both Meng and Khashoggi also found themselves at odds quite publicly with the regimes they had served. Under Meng, much to the CCP’s chagrin, Interpol cancelled a red notice that China had issued targeting Doksun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress.
The Uighurs are a largely Muslim ethnic minority in China numbering 10 million, some of whom desire independence. As tensions between the Chinese government and Uighurs have grown, manifesting in violence, the government has repressed the group, including using “education and training centres” to intern up to a million people that the Chinese characterize as “influenced by extremism.”
While a portion of the Uighurs are violent separatists and jihadists — several hundred fought for ISIS in the Middle East — China’s repression has apparently been widespread, indiscriminate, and totalitarian. As the exiled Isa was an activist on behalf of this group, China was none too pleased with Interpol’s action, issuing a statement: “China expresses its dissatisfaction at Interpol revoking the red notice for Dolkun Isa …Isa is a terrorist as determined by the Chinese government.”
Beyond the red notice cancellation, a recent statement from the Ministry of Public Security on Meng’s arrest hints at another potential offense: Meng’s closeness to a senior CCP official turned criminal. The statement reads in part, “We should resolutely oppose corruption and resolutely eliminate the pernicious influence of Zhou Yongkang.” Zhou, the highest-ranking politician to be convicted of bribery — among a slew of corruption charges — during Xi’s “anti-corruption” campaign, was sentenced to life in prison in 2015. Chinese authorities proceeded to purge numerous officials associated with Zhou.
Zhou was known to be aligned with Jiang Zemin, the former leader of the CCP (and as Federalist readers may recall, longtime friend of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein), who Xi reportedly perceives as the leader of a rival faction. Meng had served as vice-minister of public security under Zhou, who rose from minister of public security to secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. Some sources, however, have thrown cold water on the thesis that the two were in cahoots.
Khashoggi’s criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s regime, closeness to many of the individuals shaken down and beaten up at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, or jailed across the royal family, media, religious establishment, and beyond, along with his support for political Islam by way of the Muslim Brotherhood — a group the Saudi regime has designated as a terrorist organization — is well-documented.
Last but not least, by dint of their stations in life, both Meng and Khashoggi had knowledge of the inner workings of the repressive nations from which they hailed, whose leaders are hellbent on quashing not only dissenters, but all who might threaten their rule. Here’s how The New York Times described him upon his appointment as president of Interpol:
A top official in the world’s biggest internal security force, tasked with clamping down on dissent and maintaining stability in an authoritarian, one-party state. Mr. Meng’s ministry arrests and interrogates political dissidents like the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, rounds up suspected separatists in restive areas such as Xinjiang, and arrests people protesting against environmental pollution or official corruption … [Meng] is deeply immersed in Communist Party politics …
Surely over the many decades during which he worked his way up the ranks of the police force of the world’s leading police state and the CCP, Meng would have participated in and witnessed all manner of atrocities — and known literally where the bodies were buried. This may have rendered him a threat to Xi, and thus another official to be taken out.
Or his fate may have been sealed for a reason as arbitrary as Meng’s distance from Xi’s inner circle. That mere bribery — for a senior member of a Communist Party that has miraculously birthed billionaires — genuinely would have justified Meng’s peculiar arrest is almost assuredly a bridge too far.
Khashoggi was by no stretch a comparably brutal figure. He w as a simple mouthpiece for a repressive Saudi regime and exponent of political Islam. A former colleague, in spite of his criticism of Khashoggi’s worldview and avarice, suggests that in Khashoggi’s “personal dealings with people he was a gentle soul who would never have hurt a fly.” Nevertheless, he too, by dint of his relations with the ruling “party” in the House of Saud, likely knew of sensitive information that could have been leveraged against leadership. As the same critical describes it, Khashoggi:
…had dirt on Saudi links to al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks … he was employed by the Saudi intelligence services to try to persuade bin Laden to make peace with the Saudi royal family. The result? Khashoggi was the only non-royal Saudi who had the beef on the royals’ intimate dealing with al Qaeda in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks. That would have been crucial if he had escalated his campaign to undermine the crown prince … [Too] by working alongside Prince Turki during the latter’s ambassadorial stints, as he had while reporting on bin Laden, Khashoggi mixed with British, US and Saudi intelligence officials. In short, he was uniquely able to acquire invaluable inside information.
We may never know the specific reasons why both Meng and Khashoggi have met their respective fates. And the foregoing is not to draw moral equivalence between them or their cases. But it is to point out two parallel situations that have been treated by the media and political establishment completely differently.
Meng and Khashoggi are two high-profile figures who both seem to have fallen prey to authoritarian regimes they ran afoul of as part of broader efforts by those regimes to purge individuals perceived as dissenters or threats. America has substantial business with both of the implicated nations here. We are inextricably intertwined with China economically and financially. We are closely partnered with the Saudis in strategically significant areas like energy, and under the Trump administration in counter-jihadism and containment of Iran.
The nature of these two regimes is wholly antithetical to that of the United States. China’s is arguably more brutal, and it undeniably poses a greater threat to American hegemony. But when the CCP acts like the CCP, and the House of Saud acts like the House of Saud, why is it that only one provokes a massive outcry?
Meng is an undeniably less sympathetic character than Khashoggi. But is the nature of the victim the primary determinant of the media and political establishment response — a response ostensibly grounded in outrage over regimes who believe it acceptable to execute literal or legal hits on political opponents? Or is something else at play here?
Has there been a single statement from an American company stating that it will terminate its business interests in China given Xi’s ongoing Stalinesque purge of those who stand in the way of absolute power, or who dare to rebel against the CCP’s tyranny? Have the media and political establishment called for confronting the increasingly imperialist, human rights-squelching, violent Chinese regime using all elements of national power? Has there ever been even a whimper about the notion of — gasp — regime change, or even quietly cheering genuinely democratic dissent?
On the contrary, we see major companies like Google, and perhaps soon Facebook and others forging ahead with plans to collude with the ChiComs, censorship be damned. When the Chinese authorities tsk-tsk Western companies over treating Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate territories on websites, these firms have cowered and apologized. In the media and political establishment, the voices are few of those supporting President Trump’s comprehensive efforts to confront China, in a radical break from the last four decades that have only served to enrich, empower, and embolden Beijing, in large part at our expense.
As for regime change, from a practical perspective this is only a distant dream at present given the CCP’s firm grasp on power. The Party is the state, and its rule is total. But unlike in Saudi Arabia, there are truly democratic dissenters in China, in the Western sense of the word “democratic.” One can only hope and pray that the victims of Tiananmen Square will not have died in vain.
It is particularly striking that on that basis alone the business, media and political establishment have had little to say about Meng, given Interpol’s rejection of a red notice for Isa during Meng’s presidency, and the Trump administration’s reported consideration of sanctions against the Chinese on grounds of their repression of the largely Muslim minority.
Then again, they were also largely mum when Hong Kong — presumably under pressure from the CCP — earlier this month refused to renew the visa of Financial Times Asia news editor and then-president of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club Victor Mallet, who in August had hosted a speech by pro-independence activist Andy Chan against the wishes of the Chinese government. So far, it is essentially crickets.
Is this because members in good standing of the establishment fear the consequences of challenging the Chinese regime? Do they believe too much wealth is at risk if they do so? Are they on principle against supporting any Trump administration effort, even if under any other president they would wholeheartedly endorse it?
Nothing that we have seen in the coverage, or lack thereof, of the Meng case seems to indicate anything other than that Khashoggi has been made the defining issue of U.S. foreign policy because it serves the political and policy interests of those hysterical over it. While Khashoggi’s alleged grisly murder can be cynically leveraged a) against President Trump, the administration’s Saudi-centric counter-jihadist and Iran containment policy, and b) for the Iranians and their Muslim Brotherhood-aligned partners in Turkey and Qatar, China’s characteristically savage behavior serves no such purpose.
Both principle and U.S. national interest requires taking an equally if not far tougher line against the Chinese than the Saudis.