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Interpol Chief Was China’s Pride. His Fall Exposes the Country’s Dark Side.

BEIJING — A year ago, the chief of Interpol, Meng Hongwei of China, watched as his country’s president, Xi Jinping, proudly told the organization that China would play a growing role in global law enforcement. China was among the safest countries in the world and “abided by international rules,” Mr. Xi told 1,000 delegates at Interpol’s general assembly in Beijing.

Now, Mr. Meng has fallen afoul of the opaque, highly politicized legal system that critics said should have disqualified him from appointment to Interpol in the first place. On Monday, China’s minister of public security, Zhao Kezhi, told a meeting of senior police officials in Beijing that Mr. Meng was accused of taking bribes and other crimes.

Neither Mr. Zhao nor the Foreign Ministry gave details of Mr. Meng’s supposed transgressions, or said whether they had taken place before or after his election as Interpol’s president in 2016.

In any case, Mr. Meng’s abrupt and mysterious disappearance has left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Chinese officials and the international bodies that are increasingly giving them leadership roles. It dealt a spectacular, self-inflicted blow to China’s efforts to prove itself ready for more prominent roles in global affairs.

“Imagine if China were to somehow, someday, get a U.N. secretary general, and then he too one day disappeared,” said Michael Caster, a researcher and human rights advocate in Bangkok who studies China’s legal system. “The brazenness with which China operates outside all concept or procedure of international norms is really concerning.”

The biggest question hanging around Mr. Meng’s fate is why Mr. Xi’s government approved the downfall of a man it had put forward to lead the organization, which coordinates law enforcement activities among 192 member countries.

Mr. Caster contrasted China’s handling of Mr. Meng with the criminal allegations that ended the career of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The charges in that case — involving accusations of the sexual assault of a hotel maid in New York City in 2011 — were handled in a transparent way that is absent in Chinese prosecutions, especially in politically delicate cases. They ended with criminal charges being dropped against Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who settled a civil suit.

Mr. Meng was charged by the National Supervisory Commission, an anticorruption body created in March to intensify the country’s campaign against graft and to give it firmer legal cladding. China’s courts and prosecutors answer to the Communist Party, and they rarely reject anticorruption investigators’ findings. Mr. Meng’s detention is almost tantamount to a conviction.

Meng Hongwei is a stark example of how Mr. Xi’s drive for control can come at the cost of officials’ safety.CreditAndrew Matthews/Press Association, via Associated Press

Only after days of silence — and an unusual news conference by Mr. Meng’s wife — did China acknowledge that it was holding him and submit his resignation to Interpol.

Follow Steven Lee Myers and Chris Buckley on Twitter: @stevenleemyers and @ChuBailiang.

Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Paris.

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