Meng Hongwei’s Arrest Shows China Values Economic Progress over Human Rights
In late September, Meng Hongwei, the—now former—president of Interpol, traveled from his home in Lyon, France, to Beijing, China. After his arrival, he messaged his wife, Grace Hongwei, via WhatsApp and said, “Wait for my call.” Shortly after this ominous message, she received the last message anyone has gotten from him—a knife emoji. Following these messages, she reported her husband missing on October 4. Three days later, the Chinese government finally reported his arrest. He is being detained on charges of corruption, but there is rising suspicion as to the legitimacy of these allegations.
In the short time since the Chinese government apprehended Mr. Hongwei, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, India Today, and many other outlets have expressed their skepticism regarding China’s reason for detainment. These hesitations to trust the Chinese government are well-founded given China’s recent history of human rights violations and their proclivity to arrest government officials for “corruption” when the officials fail to exhibit total devotion to the Communist Party of China (CPC). Hongwei has displayed what the CPC classifies as a lapse in devotion to the party on at least one occasion, and this disobedience may have been what truly led to his arrest.
Hongwei may only be guilty of being perceived as marginally defending religious freedom and human rights in a country that has minimal respect for either.
For the past two years, China has persecuted the Muslim population, also known as the Uighurs, in its Xinjiang region. In its effort to control and humiliate the Uighur people, China regulated the number of children they may legally have, regulated beard length for men, and set an age at which young men are eligible to attend prayers at mosques. To ensure that these regulations are followed, the Xinjiang government has reportedly posted nearly 100,000 ads for policing personnel. Worst of all, China has installed many internment camps for Uighurs that the CPC disguises as “reeducation centers.”
China has taken hundreds of thousands of Uighurs from their homes to these internment camps. Survivors of these camps have later told the media of the horrors they endured while under Chinese detention. Omir, one such Uighur, told the BBC:
They have a chair called the “tiger.” My ankles were shackled, my hands locked to the chair. I couldn’t move. They wouldn’t let me sleep. They also hung me up for hours, and they beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out your nails. All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready for use at any time. You could hear other people screaming as well.
Another Uighur account from Azat recalled his story in the same interview:
It was dinnertime. There were at least 1,200 people holding empty plastic bowls in their hands. They had to sing pro-Chinese songs to get food… They were like robots. They seemed to have lost their souls. I knew many of them well—[we] used to sit and eat together. But now they didn’t look normal to me. They behaved as if they weren’t aware of what they were doing. They were like someone who had lost their memory after a car crash.
The CPC has suppressed thousands of stories similar to Omir’s and Azat’s in order to establish absolute control over the people within China’s borders. Hongwei, however, did not always “toe the party-line” once he became president of Interpol. His recent arrest by the CPC seems abrupt and unfounded unless it has to do with his interactions with the Uighur people.
As mentioned above, Hongwei is no humanitarian or human rights activist on behalf of the Uighurs, but the fact that he has subverted the CPC at all regarding the Uighurs is evidence enough to be deemed “corrupt” by the CPC’s standards.
In February 2018, Interpol revoked a “red notice,” or international arrest warrant, for Dolkun Isa. Isa is president of the World Uyghur Congress, an organization that represents the interests and human rights of Uighur people. China placed this alert on him because of his activism in support of his fellow Uighurs. He has never committed or been involved with any terrorist activity, but supporting the Uighurs is “terrorizing” enough according to the CPC. Naturally, since Interpol revoked this red notice under Hongwei’s watch, the CPC saw him as responsible.
This unjustified arrest may seem insignificant, but the CPC’s plan to continue to reeducate, brainwash, and torture Uighurs into submission is part of a much bigger plan. The Uighur’s Xinjiang homeland is in a critical location geographically, economically, and politically. Geographically, the region borders eight countries, including Russia and Afghanistan. Economically, the region is China’s most abundant source of oil, natural gas, and coal, and its GDP has been increasing significantly in recent years.
Politically, Xinjiang is the epicenter of China’s recent project known as the Belt and Road Initiative. The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s most ambitious influence expansion plan in the past century, is designed to build economic connections with countries on four continents. The countries involved with the initiative make up around 62 percent of the world’s population (4.4 billion), and the combined GDP of these countries is $23 trillion. This initiative, if successful, will supplement China’s economy while also giving the country influence over the politics and economies of countries worldwide (much more so than is already true). Given the significance of this project, it is difficult to imagine China (a violent Communist regime attempting to seize influence wherever possible) standing on the sidelines, enduring any setbacks—regardless of how major or minor they may be.
China’s abrupt arrest of a major leader is puzzling while this great initiative is in its infancy. It isn’t merely the audacity of the action itself; rather it is the lengths to which China is willing to go to protect its economic, cultural, and political interests at home and abroad. The economic and political desire to complete the Belt and Road Initiative necessitates the submission of the Uighurs, and the CPC viewed Hongwei’s revoking a major Uighur leader’s red notice as a direct contradiction of the party’s interests in the region. This is precisely what made Hongwei expendable to his government after 40 years of service to his country and party. It seems that no one is safe from the CPC if they confront or hinder the egregious treatment of the Uighurs.
Jimmy Lewis holds a BS in religion as well as an MA in philosophy from Liberty University. His scholarly interests are in ethics, religion, and foreign policy.