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The president of Interpol has gone missing in China

Meng Hongwei, who leads the international police organization, hasn’t been seen in more than a week.

The Prince of Wales shakes hands with Interpol President Meng Hongwei in France in May 2018.
Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

In what sounds like the plot of an international thriller, the head of Interpol has gone missing in China.

Meng Hongwei, the president of Interpol — an international organization that coordinates law enforcement agencies worldwide — hasn’t been seen since last week, when he departed from France on his way to China on September 29, according to multiple reports.

The French authorities opened an investigation into his disappearance after Meng’s wife reportedly went to authorities in Lyon, where Interpol is headquartered, to let them know that she hadn’t heard from her husband since he landed in China.

Meng, according to the South China Morning Post, is a Chinese national and former Communist Party official, and he is still listed as a vice-minister for the Chinese government. The outlet also reported that he’s “under investigation” in China, but Chinese authorities have not offered comment.

Meng helps set Interpol’s policies and agenda, but he doesn’t run the day-to-day operations of the world’s largest international police organization, which provides support to law enforcement agencies across 192 countries.

Interpol focuses on cross-border or transnational crimes, such as trafficking and, well, cases of missing people. It’s probably best known for issuing color-coded “notices,” or worldwide alerts for law enforcement. For example, a “red notice is basically a flag that a specific agency is looking to apprehend someone.

Interpol itself can’t arrest people, but critics say some authoritarian countries — Russia and China, among them — abuse the system to target strong critics or dissidents by issuing wanted notices through the organization.

China has also used Interpol to identify allegedly corrupt officials — which has led some to speculate that Meng might have been caught up in an anti-corruption investigation.

China’s President Xi Jinping recently presided over a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown, which he used to consolidate his power earlier this year. Officials who are targeted by the anti-graft campaign often vanish for weeks or months.

It would be a bizarre plot twist if Meng himself got caught up in such a crackdown, as China had cheered his ascension to the top of the international agency when he took over in 2016. As the New York Times pointed out, China interpreted it as a sign of its growing global clout.

And the fact that the head of an organization that flags international disappearances has now disappeared himself is … pretty weird.