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Meng Hongwei and the Rule of Law With Chinese Characteristics

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China Power

Meng Hongwei and the Rule of Law With Chinese Characteristics

The former Interpol chief is the latest example of China’s problematic justice system.

Meng Hongwei and the Rule of Law With Chinese Characteristics
Credit: Pixabay

In a sense, it doesn’t really matter now whether the president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, is corrupt or not. He has been officially detained in China and he has resigned from Interpol. That means the familiar story will play out soon. There is no chance that Meng will be found innocent during a trial — China’s justice system doesn’t work that way. His detention means that his fate has already been determined. Meng will be thrown out of the Communist Party. He will either be in jail for years, or, if the offenses have been particularly egregious, he will be executed.

On all of this, it would be nice to be wrong.

Why? Because being wrong would mean that an accused person in China stood a chance of not only being found innocent, but being presumed to be so in the first place. Being wrong would mean that the system wasn’t thoroughly stacked against a person by the time an arrest is made and a detention order is enforced.

And, importantly for a case as high-profile as this one is, being wrong about what is going to happen to Meng would also mean that whatever charges are about to be levied on him are not a political hit.

As a Party member, Meng’s case falls outside of the traditional structure of China’s criminal justice system, as Charlotte Gao detailed for The Diplomat, and his fate will be decided in an environment more severe and unforgiving than that which a common criminal would face. But even within the established system, as Cary Huang wrote in the South China Morning Post in 2016, Chinese courts “remain institutions that breed injustice. In many ways, their actions still resemble those of the imperial courts, which Judge Bao Zheng sought to reform in the Song dynasty.”

The Chinese Ministry of Justice is known to be proud of the 99-plus percent conviction rate of its courts. The obvious outcome of that skewed percentage is that many of those convicted are innocent of the crimes for which they have been charged.

Huang highlights the key reason for that statistic. “The courts should be the final protection for the people from the arbitrary power of officials, but the party sees them as a tool for social control. The party chief, President Xi Jinping, vowed in 2015 that the law would be a ‘knife held firmly in the hands of the party.’”

Ironic, then, that the last known message from Meng was an emoji of a knife sent by text to his wife.

To be sure, courts around the world that operate under the principle of the rule of law, not the principle of upholding a political party’s power, get it wrong too. Cases abound, for example, of innocent people going free after years, even decades of imprisonment, only to finally have DNA prove the verdict wrong.

In China, however, with a presumption of guilt predefining not only the proceedings but the result, as well, Chinese lawyers are hamstrung in their efforts to present a defense for the accused.

And in a case as political as Meng Hongwei’s, it would be risky for any Chinese lawyer to stick his own neck out too far to try to save Meng.  But no lawyer has to take that decision. Under the laws pertaining to Meng, he is not likely to have access to a lawyer.

This is not to say that Meng isn’t guilty of the bribery charges he faces. The kneejerk reaction of many will be to say that he probably is. This is an all-too-common offense among CCP officials of Meng’s background, stature, and age.

But Meng will not get a proper day in court to answer the charge. A prosecution doesn’t have to make a case against him, while hoping that a defense doesn’t tear that case apart.

This story raises three big questions, so far.

Some news reports have suggested that the case is highly embarrassing for China. Meng Hongwei’s accession to the top spot of Interpol, of all places, seemed to lead credence to the idea that a Chinese, and a Communist Party member at that, could take a leadership role in a major international organization. The appointment was a feather in China’s cap, another step along the way to mature state status and legitimization of the path that is taking China there.

The first big question therefore is: Why defeat that purpose? If CCP disciplinary authorities had evidence of wrongdoing and bribe-taking by Meng, why expose it when the result is a huge loss of face for the Party, for Xi, and for the country as a whole? The authorities have discretion in who is targeted, and who is not, if their decisions are supported by the very top echelons of the Party.

The authorities would have us believe that no sacrifice is too great in the quest to root out corruption in China. Today’s English-language China Daily says as much. “The investigation of Meng is very timely …which shows that there’s no privilege or exception in the face of laws, and no person can escape punishment if he or she violates the law,” said a statement put out by the Ministry of Public Security. This ethical high ground may be viewed with skepticism by some.

The second significant question relates to Meng’s involvement in crushing dissent in Xinjiang in China’s northwest. China is up against increased and intense scrutiny for its policies of detainment and incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.  The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports today that “Meng served as commander-in-chief for two counterterrorism joint drills with member states [of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization] in the far western region of Xinjiang, in 2006 and 2011, respectively.”

SCMP goes on to report, “In April 2013, after violent clashes that left 21 dead – including 15 police and community workers – in Xinjiang’s Bashu county, Meng, then director of the National Counter-Terrorism Office, told state broadcaster CCTV that the authorities would ‘adopt all necessary measures to resolutely crackdown on criminals carrying out violent, terrorist activities and punish them severely according to the law, with absolute relentlessness.’”

China defends its Xinjiang policies fiercely. Why would they choose, at this moment, to publicly take down a man who has carried out those policies and called for their continuing enforcement?

Finally, as Charlotte Gao’s article points out, a warning sign appeared as early as April of this year. “Early in April, Meng had already lost his seat on China’s Public Security Ministry’s Communist Party Committee (its real decision-making body),” although he appears to have retained his position as a deputy minister.

This raises a third question. Meng would have known that his removal from his ministry’s Party Committee did not augur well for his future. If he is guilty of taking bribes, Meng knows that, as well, and he knows better than anyone that the authorities know it, too.  It’s not a pretty option, but while waiting for the second shoe to drop, why, if guilty, didn’t he remove himself and his family from the reach of the Chinese authorities?

For certainly, under his circumstances, Meng — unlike now-rehabilitated Chinese movie star Fan Binging — is unlikely to have an opportunity to stage a tearful and apologetic comeback.