Beijing Hotel Fire's Next Victim

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on May 18, 2009

I’m not usually one to praise the Chinese government for the way it handles major screw ups, but give Beijing’s leaders credit for making heads roll after the February fire that destroyed a nearly-completed new hotel in the capital. It was under CCTV president Zhao Huayong’s watch that the state-owned network’s workers conducted an illegal fireworks display that set ablaze the $730 million Mandarin Oriental hotel and led to the death of a fireman. In March, police arrested a dozen people, including a former top CCTV official. In April, the government ordered a further investigation, the AP reports.

And now comes news that Zhao is out as boss of China’s top broadcast TV propaganda organ. The official reason: The 61-year-old Zhao was too old for the job, since the mandatory retirement age is 60, but clearly his departure is connected to the fire. Even the state-owned China Daily points out, “the switch comes three months after the nearly completed Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which stands next to CCTV’s iconic headquarters in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, went up in flames during an illegal fireworks display arranged and paid for by CCTV to mark the end of the Lunar New Year festivities.”

Meanwhile, what to make of the burned out shell? This account in the Hollywood Reporter says it’s still unclear what will happen to the site. My guess is the folks at Jardines, the old Hong Kong conglomerate that controls the Mandarin, aren’t in a great rush to rebuild. If the firework display hadn’t burned down the hotel, the Jardines execs would have had to open in an awful market, with a recession taking its toll on travel and the post-Olympic hangover from Beijing’s binge of hotel building before the Games. Now the company has a good excuse to save money and focus on other markets by walking away. Or, at the very least, get a better deal from the Chinese government in a new location. Because, really, how many people would want to stay at a rebuild Mandarin, given the fire that destroyed the building once before? Talk about bad feng-shui. (Yes, I know feng shui means wind and water, not fire. But still, I don’t think that distinction would reassure a lot of would-be visitors to put aside fears that the building didn’t have the best of luck.)

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