By JOHN LEICESTERan
LYON, France — In China, she enjoyed the privileges that flowed from being married to a senior member of the governing elite. Her husband was a top police official in the security apparatus that keeps the Communist Party in power, so trusted that China sent him to France to take up a prestigious role at Interpol.
But Meng Hongwei, the former Interpol president, has now vanished into China’s sprawling penal system, purged in a stunning fall from grace. And his wife is alone with their twin boys in France, a political refugee under round-the-clock French police protection following what she suspects was an attempt by Chinese agents to kidnap and deliver them to an uncertain fate.
From being an insider, Grace Meng has become an outsider looking in — and says she is horrified by what she sees.
So much so that she is now shedding her anonymity, potentially putting herself and her family at additional risk, to speak out against China’s authoritarian government that her husband — a vice minister of public security — served before disappearing in 2018. He was later tried and imprisoned.
“The monster” is how Meng now speaks of the government he worked for. “Because they eat their children.”
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Meng chose for the first time to show her face, agreeing to be filmed and photographed without the dark lighting and from-the-back camera angles that she previously insisted on, so she could speak openly and in unprecedented detail about her husband, herself and the cataclysm that tore them apart.
“I have the responsibility to show my face, to tell the world what happened,” she told The Associate Press in an interview. “During the past three years, I learned — just like we know how to live with the COVID — I know how to live with the monster, the authority.”
Among the global critics of China — many of them now mobilizing against the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — Meng brings the unique perspective of a former insider who has walked through the looking glass and emerged with her views transformed. So profound is the change that she has largely stopped using her Chinese name, Gao Ge. She says she now feels more herself as Grace, her chosen name, with her husband’s surname, Meng.
“I have died and been reborn,” she says.
About Meng, his whereabouts and health as an imprisoned soon-to-be 68-year-old, she is entirely in the dark. Their last communication was two text messages he sent on Sept. 25, 2018, on a work trip to Beijing. The first said, “wait for my call.” That was followed four minutes later by an emoji of a kitchen knife, apparently signaling danger. She thinks he likely sent them from his office at the Ministry of Public Security.
Since then, she says she has had no contact with him and that multiple letters sent by her lawyers to Chinese authorities have gone unanswered. She is not even sure he is alive.
“This has already saddened me beyond the point where I can be saddened further,” she said. “Of course, it’s equally cruel to my children.”
“I don’t want the children to have no father,” she added, starting to cry. “Whenever the children hear someone knocking on the door, they always go to look. I know that they’re hoping that the person coming inside will be their father. But each time, when they realize that it isn’t, they silently lower their heads. They are extremely brave.”
Official word about Meng’s fate came out in dribs and drabs. A statement in October 2018, just moments after Grace Meng had first met reporters in Lyon, France, to sound the alarm about his disappearance, announced that he was being investigated for unspecified legal violations. That signaled that he was the latest high-ranking Chinese official to fall victim to a party purge.
Interpol announced that Meng had resigned as president, effective immediately. That still infuriates his wife, who says the Lyon-based police body “was of no help at all.” She argues that by not taking a firmer stand, the global organization that works on shared law enforcement issues has only encouraged authoritarian behavior from Beijing.
“Can someone who has been forcibly disappeared write a resignation letter of their own free will?” she asked. “Can a police organization turn a blind eye to a typical criminal offense like this?”
In 2019, China announced that Meng had been stripped of his Communist Party membership. It said he abused his power to satisfy his family’s “extravagant lifestyle” and allowed his wife to use his authority for personal benefit. In January 2020, a court announced he’d been sentenced to 13 years and six months in prison on charges of accepting more than $2 million in bribes. The court said he confessed guilt and expressed regret.
His wife has long maintained that the accusations were trumped up and that her husband was purged because he’d been using his high-profile position to push for change.
“It’s a fake case. It’s an example of a political disagreement being turned into a criminal affair,” she said. “The extent of corruption in China today is extremely serious. It’s everywhere. But there are two different opinions about how to solve corruption. One is the method used now. The other is to move toward constitutional democracy, to solve the problem at its roots.”
Grace Meng also has political connections through her own family. Her mother served on an advisory body to the Chinese legislature. And the family has previous experience of political trauma. After the Communist takeover in 1949, Grace Meng’s grandfather was stripped of his business assets and later imprisoned in a labor camp, she said.
History, she says, is repeating itself.
“Of course, this is a great tragedy in our family, a source of great suffering,” she told the AP. “But I also know that very many families in China today are facing a similar fate to mine.”