Meng Hongwei has been handed over to China’s National Supervisory Commission, the most high-profile case to reach the body since its creation seven months ago. The Public Security Ministry, where Mr. Meng concurrently served as vice minister, said Monday that he is suspected of “bribe taking and alleged violations of law” without elaborating.

Mr. Meng’s disappearance became public last week after his wife reported to authorities in France, where Interpol is based, that he had gone missing after returning to China. His role leading an international bureaucracy combined with his unknown whereabouts drew attention to China’s habit of detaining people without charge in investigations—whether government officials, critics of the regime or, recently, movie star Fan Bingbing.

“It shows no one is immune from enforced disappearance whether you are talking about the world’s police chief or human-rights lawyers,” said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

While China announced late Sunday that Mr. Meng was under investigation, questions remain about what he had done and why he is in the hands of the new state antigraft commission. Communist Party members suspected of wrongdoing, such as Mr. Meng, have typically been handled by the party’s feared internal watchdog agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. They are often detained in extreme secrecy, and then sometimes handed over to prosecutors.

Mr. Meng couldn’t be reached for comment, and suspects typically aren’t allowed access to a lawyer until formal charges have been filed. The party’s watchdog agency and the National Supervisory Commission haven’t commented beyond the one-sentence statement announcing Mr. Meng’s investigation late Sunday.

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The new commission, which was set up in March, is charged with stamping out graft broadly in the party, government agencies, state-owned enterprises and all other parts of the public sector. It functions outside the judicial system and is able to detain and investigate people outside the Communist Party, as well as party members. Its first cases included a former Bank of China executive who was charged with embezzlement after being forced to return from the U.S.

“They’ve dug out a significant part of the judicial system and removed it to the executive branch,” said Peter Dahlin, a human-rights campaigner who was detained by police in China on suspicion of endangering state security in 2016 and then expelled.

China Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a routine news briefing Monday that the commission’s investigation showed the Chinese government’s resolve to uphold rule of law.

President Xi Jinping has pressed a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption since taking office six years ago, trying to root out a source of public dissatisfaction with party rule and eliminate opposition to his authority. Among the fallen “tigers,” or senior officials, have been a number of people associated with the Public Security Ministry—including Zhou Yongkang, the onetime security chief, Mr. Meng’s former boss and the highest-level target in the campaign.

The Public Security Ministry, in its statement Monday on Mr. Meng, said that “Zhou Yongkang’s poisonous influence must be resolutely eliminated,” though it didn’t directly link the two.

One apparent lapse during Mr. Meng’s tenure at Interpol, from Beijing’s perspective, was the failure to retrieve Guo Wengui, a Chinese real estate tycoon who managed to evade the campaign by going abroad and then became a vocal government critic. In April 2017, China’s Foreign Ministry said Interpol issued an international arrest notice for Mr. Guo. The U.S. has refused China’s demands for his return, and he remains in New York.

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In pressing investigations, the commission has been legally empowered to use a form of detention called liuzhi, or “retention in custody.” Under that system, a person investigated by the commission may be detained for up to six months without access to a lawyer.

“During this time, they are likely to be held in conditions that many would consider coercive, including frequent interrogations lasting long periods of time,” said Jeremy Daum, a senior research fellow at the Yale China Law Center.

Write to Eva Dou at eva.dou@wsj.com



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