French authorities are investigating after the Chinese head of an international police agency was reported to have vanished.
Meng Hongwei, the president of Interpol, was reported missing by his wife, who told police she has not heard from him since he left on a trip to China last Saturday.
Police in Lyon, where the international police cooperation agency is based, have launched an inquiry into what they called “a worrying disappearance”.
Interpol has refused to clarify Mr Meng’s whereabouts, saying the case is “a matter for the relevant authorities in both France and China.”
Mr Meng, a vice-minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security, was elected to a four year term as president of Interpol, a global body that facilitates international police cooperation, in 2016.
He is the first Chinese national to hold the post and had been one of Beijing’s top law enforcement officials, overseeing the country’s coastguard and counter-terrorism efforts, as well as international police cooperation.
In recent months there have been signs that he has fallen out of the favour with the ruling Communist party.
In April this year he was removed from the ministry’s powerful Communist Party committee. Earlier he reportedly missed a series of high-level meetings, and stopped serving as director of the coast guard and deputy head of the state oceanic administration. It is not clear if he resigned those posts or was fired.
Mr Meng likely worked closely with Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Ministry of Public Security, who was expelled from the Communist Party in 2014 and later convicted for corruption, bribery and leaking state secrets. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
Several high ranking Chinese officials, wealthy businessmen and even celebrities have disappeared without explanation since Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign after coming to power in 2012.
About 1.5 million government officials have been punished for wrongdoing in the crackdown, which critics say is an excuse for president Xi to target political enemies.
“If somebody more powerful than you accuses you of something they don’t like…it does not matter whether you even broke a law,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch. “What matters is that you’ve irked somebody further up on the food chain and you’re going to pay a price.”
High profile cases include that of Fan Bingbing, China’s highest paid celebrity, who disappeared in June amid reports she was being investigated for tax evasion.
The rumor mill continued churning until this week, when she re-appeared and was ordered to pay millions in back taxes and fines.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported on Friday that Mr Meng was being held for questioning. It was not clear what, if any, charges have been leveled against him.
High-ranking party officials are generally subject to a separate disciplinary system that has no legal basis, Ms Richardson said.
They can be detained indefinitely and kept out of public view while party leaders decide their punishment.
In March the authorities created a new agency, the National Supervision Commission, to act as the country’s highest ranking anti-corruption body.
Calls to the press office of China’s Ministry of Public Security were unanswered on Friday evening in Beijing.
China is at the end of a week-long national holiday period celebrating the country’s founding.
"Exchanges with Chinese authorities continue," the French interior ministry said in a statement. "France is puzzled about the situation of Interpol’s president and concerned about the threats made to his wife."
While Mr Meng’s global role at Interpol could have afforded him some political protection, human rights and legal advocates criticised his appointment over concerns Beijing would use his authority to silence and pursue dissidents abroad.
In China, “nobody is safe — everybody has got to be looking over their shoulders thinking, ‘Are they coming for me next?’” Ms Richardson said.
Interpol said in a statement it was “aware of media reports in connection with the alleged disappearance” of its president, but refused to confirm or deny rumours that Mr Meng had been arrested in China.
It said theorganisation’s secretary-general was the full-time official responsible for daily operations.