BEIJING (Reuters) - China will push for greater international cooperation in the fight against corruption and terrorism when it hosts Interpol’s general assembly next week, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the matter, against a backdrop of concerns China is using the body for its own goals.
Last year, the global police cooperation agency elected a senior Chinese public security official, Vice Public Security Minister Meng Hongwei, as its president, prompting rights groups to ask whether Beijing could try and use the position to go after dissidents abroad.
Beijing has tried for many years to enlist the help of foreign countries to arrest and deport back to China citizens it accuses of crimes including corruption and terrorism.
The three Beijing-based sources, who are familiar with the planning for the Interpol meeting, said China is likely to make these two areas its focus for the general assembly.
Beijing has faced reluctance, in Western countries in particular, when it asks for the repatriation of those wanted for alleged crimes in China. Governments and judiciary in these countries have been concerned that the Chinese don’t produce evidence acceptable for Western courts, and that defendants might be mistreated and won’t get a fair trial in China amid concerns that allegations can be politically motivated.
Western diplomats familiar with Chinese requests say China sometimes misunderstands that in Western countries it needs to process its demands through the courts.
“They’re often quite surprised to hear that we can’t simply hand them over,” said one diplomat, declining to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.
But China’s security officials have been working to understand the legal requirements of developed countries and international bodies so their requests for expedition become more palatable.
Beijing has also been attempting to build intelligence sharing relationships with Western countries in the fight against Islamist militants, diplomats say. China is itself battling what it says are Uighur extremists operating in its far Western region of Xinjiang.
Speaking last week, Li Shulei, who leads China’s efforts to find and return those suspected of corruption who live abroad, called for a strengthened international anti-graft cooperation framework.
“We must build a new order to fight international corruption... cut off escape routes for corrupt elements,” he told a meeting in Beijing.
China has given few details about Interpol’s general assembly, which opens in Beijing on Tuesday with a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On the question of Meng’s influence in Interpol, the diplomats say that the position is largely ceremonial. The Lyon, France-based Interpol says its Secretary General Jürgen Stock, a German national, is the organization’s full-time chief official overseeing the day-to-day work of international police cooperation.
In 2014, China issued Interpol “red notices” for its 100 most-wanted corruption suspects who have fled overseas as part of XI’s sweeping campaign against corruption. Almost half have come back to China to date, some voluntarily, according to the government.
Interpol says “red notices” are requests to provisionally arrest suspects pending extradition, and are not international arrest warrants.
It is up to a member state to act upon an Interpol red notice. They can be ignored if a government decides there is insufficient evidence to act upon them, diplomats say.
There are no figures for how many red notices are ignored. Red notices themselves are often not made publicly available and it is up to the country issuing them to decide if they are publicized or not.
Requests are carefully examined to ensure they comply with Interpol’s constitution, which bans “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”, Interpol said in a statement to Reuters.
“Interpol cannot insist or compel any member country to arrest an individual who is the subject of a Red Notice. Nor can Interpol require any member country to take any action in response to another member country’s request,” it said.
China has attracted criticism from rights groups for targeting in particular exiled Uighurs from Xinjiang, and accusing them of terrorism, including Dolkun Isa, the general secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
China’s Ministry of Public Security, which is helping to organise the Beijing meeting, did not respond to requests for comment on concerns about China’s role in Interpol.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Interpol operated under the principles of professionalism and neutrality to jointly fight and prevent crime and China respected that.
In April, Interpol issued a global “red notice” at Beijing’s request for Guo Wengui, a billionaire currently exiled in Manhattan, who has made claims of high-level corruption within the Communist Party.
Guo has said the red notice showed China was exerting its influence, given it had the head of Interpol, “to prevent ordinary Chinese people from blowing the whistle on official corruption while overseas”.
Maya Wang, Hong Kong-based China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that China’s vice police chief heading Interpol can be seen as part of an overall push by Beijing to flex its international muscle.
“We have reason to worry that the internal information being shared by Interpol with the police chief may impact on particularly vulnerable minorities like the Uighurs, who have sometimes been involved in terrorism but often are targeted for political disloyalty,” said Wang, who acknowledged that so far there is little concrete evidence that this has happened.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Martin Howell