Meng Hongwei’s election as head of Interpol can act as a bridge
The elevation of first Chinese to lead international police force can serve to enhance understanding of different criminal justice systems
Whether it is about bringing fugitives to justice, solving violent or financial crime, or combating human trafficking, drug running, money laundering or terrorism, effective law enforcement increasingly needs cooperation between different police forces. The international community’s response emerged nearly 100 years ago as the International Criminal Police Commission, which later became known as Interpol.
Until now, no one from China had been elected to lead it, a notable omission given that it accounts for a fifth of the world’s population and that it has an abiding interest in bringing home a legion of economic fugitives and recovering the ill-gotten gains with which they departed. The election of vice-minister for public security Meng Hongwei as the first Chinese head of Interpol is therefore something of a landmark in the country’s international engagement and recognition of its importance to the challenge of global policing in the internet age.
However, the appointment has prompted questions from human rights watchers. They fear China could abuse the position to hunt down dissidents, as well as promote “Operation Fox Hunt”, which has brought home more than 2,000 economic fugitives. These concerns may be understandable given different criminal justice systems, but they underline the need to address a fundamental obstacle. This is the absence of extradition treaties between China and Western countries, especially the United States, which remain unconvinced that all repatriated corruption suspects would get fair trials.
On the positive side, Meng’s tenure as chairman of Interpol’s executive committee should promote understanding in China of international practice in law enforcement and prosecution, and also understanding abroad of China’s justice system. It might also change the perception in some countries that whoever is on the run from China, and whom the authorities would like returned, must be a victim of persecution.