Marriott has about 100 hotels in China. To do business there is to acquiesce to the country’s leadership. Marriott has consistently towed the party line, as it did two years ago when spanked by the Chinese government for listing Taiwan as a separate country. They fired an hourly worker who ‘liked’ a tweet supporting Taiwanese independence and proactively removed banned books from hotels.
Now the CEO of the hotel chain Arne Sorenson is giving interviews on China’s effectiveness in containing the virus, adopting the country’s talking points and effectively assisting President Xi Jinping shore up a key vulnerability as he prepares for re-election by the Communist Party.
Why China’s Coronavirus Narrative Matters
When we talk about China obfuscating the spread and danger from COVID-19 in its early stages we commit a fundamental error of treating the country as a single political entity.
Local officials, confronted with novel problems, and lacking in specific direction from above, tend to be extremely risk averse. Negative information tends to get suppressed. That suppression isn’t primarily about keeping China from being embarrassed in front of the world, but rather about protecting the political careers of those minor officials. It wasn’t Xi Jinping who ordered doctors silenced as they speculated about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
U.S. politicians have placed blame for the virus on ‘China’ when in fact bureaucracies in both countries responded poorly to the threat.
Nonetheless the coronavirus crisis represents perhaps the biggest internal challenge the Chinese President faces as he seeks a third term at the Twentieth Party Congress in late 2022.
It was likely that President Xi himself didn’t know the severity of the situation until late January, and his public appearances and statements don’t begin to put it front and center until a week into February. China let the virus become uncontained. They let it spread. And they didn’t warn the world, likely because information didn’t immediately reach the top. As the grave nature of the threat became clear Xi replaced Vice Premier Sun Chunlan center stage in the country’s response.
China did act aggressively in Wuhan, and President Xi has sought to advance a narrative of decisiveness and effectiveness. The country has shipped personal protective equipment around the world, and sought to tell a story that they beat back the virus while others have been unable to do so and that’s a testament to the success of their political system and to their leaders.
When the virus re-enters China, that’s a threat, and so they lay blame on a foreign version of the virus – ironically pointing fingers at Europe being at fault for infections in China.
China is Leveraging Marriott To Advance Its Narrative Of Covid Success
Why does President Xi’s fortunes in front of the Twentieth Party Congress matter to travel right now? Just as Xi is using the crisis to exert control over Hong Kong, advancing a national security law that will suppress speech and seek to control the narrative there, and plug a major vulnerability that he faces China is leveraging control over U.S. travel companies to advance its narrative on coronavirus success as well.
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson says Marriott is hurting because countries like the U.S. haven’t been as effective as China at containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
A heavy-handed government response to coronavirus, while tough in the short term, may ultimately fuel a faster hotel industry recovery, according to the world’s largest hotel company’s chief executive.
…“You see in China’s response something of the advantage of a powerful central government that can by itself set the rules and by and large get 100 percent compliance,” Sorenson said Thursday during a webinar hosted by the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “They move quickly to implement the kind of restrictions that have, as far as we can tell, a profound impact on the spread of this virus.”
I don’t know what China has told Marriott executives, or what advice Sorenson has been given about his talking points to advance business in the country, but there’s little way to read his narrative other than consistent with talking points of supporters of President Xi Jinping.
Marriott has re-opened all its China hotels. During the COVID crisis, by the way, Marriott hotels were open and turning away Americans as guests because the Chinese government told them to.
The hotel chain has a deep recent history cozying up to dictators. They failed to deflag the Ritz-Carlton in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia when the government there turned the hotel into a prison and torture site.
Maybe that’s what Marriott should be doing, whatever is in its short term financial interest. Their brand doesn’t need to be a social cause. But don’t believe them when they try to cloak their behaviors in social responsibility this-and-that.