Questions have been raised about the neutrality of international organisations which have an increasing Chinese presence, particularly the Interpol. China watchers say the way the country has been trying to exercise its clout in the Interpol is reflective of a trend wherein financial leverage is combined with diplomatic manoeuvring to build strong connections. Nominees are appointed at crucial multilateral forums to promote vested political interests.
It is against this backdrop that the alleged arrest of a Uyghur activist by police in a North African state at the request of Chinese authorities needs to be examined.
Undoubtedly, China exerts a large influence on Interpol. The election of Chinese vice minister of public security, Meng Hongwei, as president of the Interpol in 2016 had signalled that China was a leading country in this body. China has long been accused of abusing Interpol’s Red Notice System (RNS), which basically arrests individuals pending an extradition agreement.
However, rather than applying this system objectively to nab criminals and members of international gangs, China has selectively used this service to repatriate Chinese nationals wanted by the authorities for engaging in political/religious activism or expressing views contrary to that professed by the Chinese Communist Party.
The RNS constitutes an important part of China’s repatriation strategy. It freezes all international bank accounts and increases travel restrictions for designated individuals. China in 2015 issued 100 Red Notices against so-called economic fugitives through Operation Skynet, of which 51 have already been repatriated. Interestingly, succumbing to immense pressure and sustained Chinese threats, 35 of the 51 identified ‘criminals’ “voluntarily” returned to China. Among other factors the most probable one is that these targets returned home because of harassment of their families.
The arrest of Meng, former president of the Interpol, demonstrates that China views its own version of justice as superseding the integrity of an international organization. An important case in Interpol history is the one of Dolkun Isa – a German based activist working for the rights of the Uyghur community – who fled China in the early ’90s and was subsequently issued a Red Notice in 1997 for his alleged terrorist links in Xinjiang. This notice, however, later had to be revoked in 2018 due to lack of evidence.
Another case is Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who fled China in 2014 and later gave interviews to the US media exposing the secrets of the Chinese Communist Party and personally calling out former Politburo member He Guoqing for hidden wealth and corruption. He was issued an RNS extradition notice on grounds of corruption, bribery and rape.
One of the most prominent influences China exerts on Interpol is the continued isolation of Taiwan from the membership of the organization. The exclusion of Taiwan means the world is missing a critical link in an otherwise integrated fight against threats such as terrorism and cyber-attacks, point out China watchers, as the Taiwanese population is more vulnerable to these dangers than the populations of other countries.
China envisages that, as the world becomes more connected through globalisation, the best way to project its power and maintain its security is to increase its participation in multilateral institutions. But China has repeatedly, wrongfully used the Interpol to stifle dissent. The Interpol is a watchdog meant to uphold the values of fairness, transparency and accountability and the international community must ensure that.