Nov 18, 2021 - World

Exclusive: Marriott refused to host Uyghur conference, citing "political neutrality"

Illustration of a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on a doorknob that looks like China’s flag.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Marriott hotel in Prague declined to host a conference of activists and leaders from China's Uyghur diaspora this month, citing "political neutrality," an email shared with Axios shows.

Why it matters: The Chinese government has condemned the World Uyghur Congress, which has attempted to rally global attention to the genocide in Xinjiang, China. The decision to reject the conference reflects China's growing ability to extend authoritarian control beyond its borders by making clear to corporations that crossing the party's red lines will be bad for business.

  • The World Uyghur Congress consists mainly of Uyghurs living in exile and advocates for the rights of those who remain in the Xinjiang region in western China, where upwards of one million people have been held in internment camps.
  • About 200 delegates from 25 countries gathered in Prague from Nov. 12-14 to elect the organization's new leadership and hold discussions with politicians, academics and civil society representatives from around the world. The Prague Marriott Hotel declined to host the conference.
  • Melissa Froehlich Flood, Marriott's senior vice president for global corporate communications, told Axios the hotel would be "contacting the group to apologize, as the hotel's response was not consistent with our policies."

How it happened: Working with local partners in Prague, organizers for the conference reached out to several hotels for quotes, Zumretay Arkin, the Munich-based program and advocacy manager for the World Uyghur Congress tells Axios. The group then sent a representative to visit the Marriott.

  • "At first, the person didn't mention the background information on the conference and the organization that was organizing it," Arkin says. That information came up during the visit.
  • Not long thereafter, an email arrived from an events manager at the hotel:
"Thank you very much for your visit today. Unfortunately, I have to inform you that we are not able to offer the premises. We consulted the whole matter with our corporate management. For reasons of political neutrality, we cannot offer events of this type with a political theme. Thank you once again for your time and understanding."
— Oct. 1 email

Between the lines: Marriott hotels frequently host political fundraisers and events.

  • The Marriott spokesperson clarified in a statement to Axios that hosting the conference would not have violated any "political neutrality" policy, and said the reference to "corporate management" in the email referred to "hotel-level management."
  • "We are working with the hotel team to provide additional training and education on our longstanding practices of inclusion," she said.

The U.S.-based company does have a history of flare-ups involving China, its biggest international market.

  • Marriott International issued a profuse apology in 2018 after Chinese authorities shut down its booking website over an online questionnaire that listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as countries, rather than regions of China.
  • "We do not support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China," the statement said.
  • Also in 2018, Marriott fired a U.S.-based employee who used a company Twitter account to like a post by a pro-Tibet group.

The big picture: The World Uyghur Congress has repeatedly drawn the ire of Chinese authorities, who have declared it a terrorist group for allegedly fomenting unrest in Xinjiang, though the group does not promote violence and is on no international terrorist lists.

  • Ahead of the conference, the Chinese embassy in Prague condemned the Congress and the politicians who participated.
  • Prague mayor Zdeněk Hřib, who attended the conference, said in response: "I hear that China is unhappy about this conference being held here in Prague. Well, I am unhappy there's a country in 2021 that has concentration camps."

What they're saying: The conference organizers found Marriott's response "shocking," Arkin says, adding that none of the other hotels they reached out to expressed any concerns.

  • "We organize international events all the time and this is the first time we were given this excuse," she says.
  • "It is chilling because of the broader concept of how China is really disrupting Western democracies," she adds.

Go deeper: U.S. declares China's actions against Uyghurs "genocide"

Go deeper