LYON, France (AP) — The call came at night and was chilling.
“You listen, but you don’t speak,” the man on the other end said. “We’ve come in two work teams, two work teams just for you.”
In her first one-on-one interview since her husband’s disappearance in China, the wife of the former head of Interpol described the threatening phone call that prompted authorities in the French city where the international law enforcement agency is headquartered to place her under police protection.
French authorities are still trying to determine whether China did indeed, as the mysterious caller menaced, dispatch agents to get to Grace Meng, the wife of Meng Hongwei. But she has good reason to be fearful: Speaking out about the fate of her high-profile husband risks China’s ire and, she said, is putting her “in great danger.”
However, she hopes that doing so will help other families in similar circumstances.
“He has disappeared for so long and nobody has given me any information or told me where he has gone. This is very common now in China,” she told The Associated Press during an interview. “I feel like I have a responsibility to stand up. Only when you’ve been through this much pain can you understand that even more people have been suffering.”
Meng Hongwei — who was China’s vice minister of public security while also leading Interpol — vanished while on a trip to China late last month. A long-time Communist Party insider with decades of experience in China’s sprawling security apparatus, the 64-year-old is the latest high-ranking official to fall victim to a sweeping purge against allegedly corrupt or disloyal officials under President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian administration.
Speaking to the AP late Monday at a hotel in Lyon, the French city where she lives and Interpol is based, Grace Meng said she had put their two boys to bed when she got the threatening call. It was one week after her last contact with her husband. On Sept, 25, he sent her from China an emoji of a knife — suggesting to her he was in danger.
The man who called her on her mobile phone spoke in Chinese, she said. She said the only clue he gave about his identity was saying that he used to work for Meng, suggesting that the man was part of China’s security apparatus. He also said he knew where she was.
“Just imagine: My husband was missing, my kids were asleep, all my other phones weren’t working, and that was the only call I got. I was so frightened,” she said.
By speaking out about her husband’s fate, she has taken a step practically unheard of in Chinese politics, where such moves are seen as confrontational.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Tuesday in Beijing.
Chinese authorities said Monday that Meng Hongwei is being lawfully investigated for taking bribes and other crimes that were a result of his “willfulness.” Hours earlier, Interpol said Meng had resigned as the international police agency’s president. It was not clear whether he did so of his own free will.
His wife suggested that the bribery accusation is just an excuse for a lengthy detention.
“As his wife, I think he’s simply incapable of this,” she said. She said she would be willing to make their bank accounts public.
She refused to provide her real name to the AP, saying she was too afraid for the safety of her relatives in China. It is not customary for Chinese wives to adopt their husbands’ names. Mrs. Meng said she has done so now to show her solidarity with her husband. Her English name, Grace, is one she has long used, she said.
A French judicial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to the AP that police are investigating the threat against her, but said the probe has yet to determine whether there were indeed Chinese teams sent to Lyon.
China’s move to go after the Interpol president, an official with international standing, was unusually audacious even for an administration that under Xi’s leadership has sought to assert its interests more aggressively on the global stage.
Poland’s interior minister, Joachim Brudzinski, told AP on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting in Lyon Tuesday that he disapproved of Beijing’s conduct. Brudzinski thinks it shows China believes it can act with impunity “in an ostentatious way, without limit.”
Grace Meng wouldn’t speculate on why her husband may have fallen out of favor, saying he had stayed above the secrecy-shrouded world of factional party politics.
She described her husband as a man of modest beginnings, the fifth of six children whose parents were school teachers. He rose through the ranks based on his own merit, she said, and remained an idealist who longed to see the rule of law established in China.
Tearfully, she said she hasn’t yet been able to tell their young sons about his detention.
China’s beleaguered rights activists point out that as someone with a seat atop the country’s powerful public security apparatus, Meng has helped build the opaque system of largely unchecked power wielded by the ruling Communist Party to which he’s now fallen victim.
“Once an issue becomes political, there is no law. This has happened even to Meng Hongwei himself,” said Hu Jia, a Beijing-based rights activist who is frequently placed under house arrest for his critical comments. “If his wife weren’t in France and speaking to the media, his case would have been locked in a black box.”
Earlier this year Chinese officials established the National Supervision Commission, a party-led anti-corruption agency empowered to detain suspects for up to six months and to operate independent of the Cabinet, courts and prosecutors.
“If Meng Hongwei weren’t an Interpol chief, people would have no idea what kind of a police empire China has become,” said Hu, the activist.