China needs to pick the right people for key global bodies

October 18, 2018 09:30
The controversy surrounding former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei has dented China's image. Credit: Press pool file photo via Reuters

Last month, the president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, made a trip back to China – and promptly vanished. His wife hasn't heard from him since Sept. 25 when he sent her via text message an emoji of a knife, an ominous sign.

After a week of waiting, during which she was unable to reach her husband, Grace Meng informed the French police on Oct. 4, and news of Meng’s disappearance became public. It was only on Oct. 8, after a meeting of its Communist Party committee in the small hours, did a Chinese ministry announce that Meng had been detained pending investigations into charges of corruption.

Subsequently, Interpol received a message from Meng announcing his resignation, effective immediately.

It was unclear if the alleged offences occurred before or after Meng assumed the presidency of Interpol in November 2016, the first Chinese national to lead the international criminal police organization, headquartered in Lyon, France.

As is normally the case, Meng’s name was put forward by the Chinese government. It certainly added to the country’s luster that a vice minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security was considered fit to lead Interpol. But now, it seems, China may have picked the wrong man, one who, according to the ministry’s website, turns out to be corrupt.

China's global influence has been expanding as the country continues to rise in economic, political, diplomatic and military terms. There has been a growing trend in the last dozen years for Chinese nationals to assume leadership positions in global institutions. The process is still continuing but, as the Meng case shows, China needs to pick the right people to nominate. Otherwise, such nominees will negatively affect China's image and undermine confidence in other Chinese who lead global institutions.

The way China has handled the Meng case is baffling. It did not even inform Interpol that it was holding its president on suspected corruption charges until almost two weeks after detaining him, and until the French police had started investigating his disappearance. Of course, Meng is a Chinese national subject to Chinese law, but it is seriously disrespectful to Interpol, to say the least, not to inform the organization.

Aside from Interpol, Chinese nationals today also hold key posts in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Telecommunication Union.

Interestingly enough, the first Chinese national to lead a key global body was a woman doctor from Hong Kong, Margaret Chan. She was Director of Health in Hong Kong for nine years and dealt with the bird flu crisis of 1997 and the far graver SARS crisis of 2002-2003. She joined the World Health Organization in 2003 as Director of the Department for Protection of the Human Environment.

She then served as Director, Communicable Diseases Surveillance and Response and in September 2005 she was named Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases.

After the sudden death of Director General Lee Jong-wook in 2006, she ran for his post with China’s strong support. However, during her campaign, she said: “You need to leave your nationality behind because you’re serving the world. If elected, I’m not serving Hong Kong’s interests. I’m not serving China’s interests. I’m serving the world’s interests. That’s a very important message to get clear.”

Ironically, while she won her WHO post largely on the strength of her expertise in dealing with infectious diseases, China – the country that sponsored her – was known to have been less than honest in dealing with the world health body during SARS. At a news conference after her appointment, Chan was asked about her nationality and China’s cover-up during the SARS crisis.

She replied that, being a Chinese national, she hoped that she would have better access to senior levels of the Chinese government.

Perhaps as a result of that relationship, China has significantly improved as far as openness in medical matters is concerned. Their interests collided during SARS, when Hong Kong needed information and Beijing was unwilling to provide but, after 2006, their interests largely coincided.

Overall, China should certainly appreciate that Hong Kong, and Chan in particular, was able to help launch Beijing onto the world stage by assuming the top position at a key United Nations body, at a time when China was unable to do it on its own.

It would be good if other Chinese officials serving in global posts, such as Interpol, were able to have the same positive influence as Margaret Chan did and help their home government to institute reforms in their areas of expertise. Of course, China has to pick the right people first.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.