In a startling move that could set back the country’s efforts to expand its global presence, the Chinese Communist Party announced late Sunday that the missing president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, was under investigation on “suspicion of violating the law” and was “under the supervision” of an anticorruption watchdog tied to the party.
The announcement that Mr. Meng, a Chinese citizen, was being detained was posted online by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s watchdog against graft and political disloyalty, on Sunday night.
A few hours later, Interpol said it had received Mr. Meng’s resignation “with immediate effect.”
The statement of his detention and his subsequent stepping down came a day after Interpol demanded answers from the Chinese government on the whereabouts of Mr. Meng, who was reported missing on Thursday.
The detention of Mr. Meng, 64, is an audacious step by the party, even by the standards of the increasingly authoritarian system under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. China has sought legitimacy and a leadership role in international organizations, and Mr. Meng’s appointment in November 2016 as the president of Interpol, the first Chinese head of the global policing agency, was seen by many as a significant step in that direction. His detention undermines that campaign.
Mr. Meng’s appointment “was considered quite an achievement for China and a sign of its international presence and growing influence,” said Julian Ku, a professor at Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law, who has studied China’s relationship with international law.
While China may have had its eye on placing its citizens in other top posts at prominent global organizations, “the fact that Meng was ‘disappeared’ without any notice to Interpol will undermine this Chinese global outreach effort,” Mr. Ku said. “It is hard to imagine another international organization feeling comfortable placing a Chinese national in charge without feeling nervous that this might happen.”
The announcement of Mr. Meng’s detention came hours after his wife, Grace, told reporters in Lyon, France, that before her husband had vanished on a trip to China, he had sent her a phone message with an emoji of a knife.
She interpreted the knife image to mean “he is in danger,” she said in a brief statement to reporters on Sunday in Lyon, where the two were living and where Interpol is headquartered.
Ms. Meng gave her statement at a hotel, keeping her back to reporters so that her face would not be captured on camera, a precaution that she said was for security reasons for herself and her children.
She said she had received the message with the knife image shortly after Mr. Meng arrived in China. It came just four minutes after she received a message from him saying, “Wait for my call,” she said.
She has not heard from him since. She reported his disappearance to the French police on Oct. 4. A French police investigation is now underway, with the authorities saying that he had boarded a plane and arrived in China, but that his subsequent whereabouts was unknown.
In addition to serving as president of the international crime-fighting body, Mr. Meng is also a vice minister in the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.
The central commission can detain party officials for months or years while carrying out an investigation. The commission often concludes an investigation by stripping an official of party membership, stating the official’s violations of party regulations and referring the official to the justice system for criminal prosecution.
Since Mr. Xi took power as president of China, the commission has gone on a wide-ranging anticorruption campaign that has touched every level of the party.
His detention means that internal party dynamics supersede any concern from the party about international legitimacy or transparency.
The party’s moves in this case “suggest that the domestic considerations outweighed the international ones,” said Mr. Ku, the law professor. “This has always been true for China, but perhaps not so obviously true as in this case.”
It is unclear what led to Mr. Meng’s apparent downfall — a power struggle within the party or an actual case of corruption that officials deemed to be beyond the pale.
There have been investigations of prominent figures in the anticorruption campaign. The most notable has been that of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee and top security official. Many analysts of Chinese politics say Mr. Xi viewed Mr. Zhou as a rival and used the anticorruption campaign to imprison him.
“What I find most interesting about Meng Hongwei’s detention,” said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, “is the continued parade of senior officials being arrested.”
With officials appointed by Mr. Xi himself now being caught up in the six-year anticorruption drive, “it raises the question of whether Xi Jinping simply has a very thin bench of clean officials from whom to choose, whether these officials were adequately vetted before being promoted or whether the anticorruption campaign is simply failing to deter officials from continued corrupt behaviors,” Ms. Economy said. “Whatever the reason, it doesn’t bode well for the party’s ability, ultimately, to police itself.”
Margaret Lewis, a professor of Chinese and Taiwanese law at Seton Hall University Law School, said Mr. Meng’s detention sends a signal that “no one is safe,” and it could give other Chinese officials posted abroad “pause when considering their own travel plans.”
Mr. Meng was last seen leaving Interpol headquarters in Lyon on Sept. 29 for his trip to China. His wife and children had moved with him to Lyon after his appointment.
Under the terms of Interpol’s Constitution, the acting senior vice president, Kim Jong-yang of South Korea, becomes acting president.
At her news conference on Sunday, Ms. Meng said she had decided to speak publicly because she felt it was her responsibility to do so. Her step was extraordinary: Family members of Chinese officials in trouble with the party or government usually do not make a plea for international help.
“From now on, I have gone from sorrow and fear to the pursuit of truth, justice and responsibility toward history,” she said. “For the husband whom I deeply love, for my young children, for the people of my motherland, for all the wives and children, so that their husbands and fathers will no longer disappear.”