On the face of it, you couldn’t find two more different people in Beijing. One, a glamorous 37-year-old actress who is China’s biggest global movie star. The other, a grim-faced 64-year-old Communist Party of China (CPC) apparatchik who rose to the top of the party-state’s powerful state security apparatus. In recent weeks, however, Fan Bingbing and Meng Hongwei have found their fates intertwining in the most unexpected of ways.
First, Fan, a globally famous star (known abroad from the X-Men franchise) seemingly disappeared from the face of the planet for three months. Her agents stayed silent, her social media (and that of her actor partner) went mysteriously inactive and the government in Beijing refused queries about her whereabouts. That would be the equivalent of Katrina Kaif in India or Julia Roberts in the U.S., being disappeared by the state for three months without a single morsel of information. Fan, it turns out, was being held in detention by tax authorities in a remote resort. The government finally announced, after months of silence and global attention, she was being investigated for tax evasion.
Then, late last month, Meng, the first Chinese president of Interpol and a senior official who served as Vice Minister in the Ministry of Public Security, disappeared from his post in Lyon at the Interpol headquarters. French police were only alerted by Meng’s wife, who said she had received a message from him on September 25 on WhatsApp suggesting he was in trouble. After two weeks of uncertainty, China confirmed on October 7 he had been detained on arrival at Beijing airport.
Both cases, in different ways, shed some light on how the Chinese government—and the CPC—view both China’s role in the world and their exercise of power. In Fan’s case, the CPC thought nothing about essentially disappearing a globally renowned star. Meng’s, in some sense, is perhaps even more troubling, since he not only represented China but headed Interpol, an influential international organisation with global reach.
Indeed, Meng’s appointment to Interpol was something of a coup for China. Concerns were raised over his appointment, not without basis. In China, it was seen as global validation for its version of “the rule of law”, and for a security apparatus that operates with little checks and balances in an authoritarian, one-party state. Overseas, it was seen as giving China carte blanche in going after both corrupt fugitive and, for the party, dissidents abroad that it sees as trouble-makers.
In detaining Meng, Beijing chose neither to inform Interpol nor Meng’s family. In China, however, this is commonplace under the system known as “shuanggui”, referring to a designated time and location where party members are kept in an extrajudicial process, without recourse to legal help. Both Fan and Meng, despite their global stature, were similarly detained, although Fan escaped criminal action, instead levied with a massive $129 million penalty.
The message is that the party will always come first, no matter international expectation or international norms. For the world, this is a troubling one at a time when China is actively seeking representation at a growing number of international organisations as well as seeking to shape both international governance and norms in Beijing’s view. Indeed, at last year’s party congress in Beijing, Xi Jinping himself suggested that the China model was “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development” and “offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind”.
Even the increasingly cautious Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post opined in a commentary: “The international media have overwhelmingly and rightly panned Beijing for its audacity in disregarding international norms, which has undermined the international community’s confidence in Chinese leadership of global organisations and set back its efforts to expand its international presence”.
The newspaper helpfully listed the number of prominent Chinese officials occupying major international roles: Liu Zhenmin, undersecretary general for economic and social affairs at the United Nations; Zhang Tao, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Yi Xiaozhun, deputy director general of the World Trade Organisation; and even the Vice-President of the International Court of Justice, Xue Hanqin. “Ironically, the incident, like a short, dark film played out on the international stage”, the newspaper observed, “and could have been avoided or its implications minimised through a simple phone call or an email from the Chinese authorities to Interpol on the day of, or soon after, Meng’s secret detention in Beijing”.
In the end, it took Beijing almost two weeks to make a public statement that it had essentially disappeared the head of a major international organisation — that too, ironically, one that deals with international crime and law enforcement — and had deemed him a criminal. (In China, detentions of party officials usually results in conviction and there is little or no chance of overturning what the party investigators have already decided.)
What should worry Beijing—but apparently does not—is the disconnect between its growing global profile—and rising international expectations—with the move in China away from global norms. For instance, under Xi, the practice of shuanggui hasn’t diminished but expanded greatly, used as a powerful tool in his sweeping anti-corruption crackdown. In fact, it is now being regularised under an expanded National Supervisory Commission. The message is clear—regardless of international obligations, the party will always come first. As Fan, the actress, herself put it in the apology she was no doubt forced to issue publicly: “Without the party and country’s good policies, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing”.
(Ananth Krishnan is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India, and was previously China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu)
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