Airbnb closes door to guests ahead of China’s political jamboree
by Yuan Yang - Beijing, FT
October 12, 2017 | 5:01 pm| | | Start Conversation
Airbnb, the world’s biggest room-sharing platform, has cancelled its Beijing city centre bookings for the rest of this month as authorities tighten their grip on the city ahead of next week’s Communist party congress.
China’s five-yearly political gathering, which begins on Wednesday, will mark the start of a second five-year term for President Xi Jinping, who will reveal a new leadership team. Heightened security means disruption to business in the capital as shops and roads are closed.
Without explanation, Airbnb said listings within the capital’s sixth ring road would not be available until the start of November. All bookings have been cancelled within a 20km radius of Tiananmen Square, the area where the 19th National Congress will be held.
That leaves only 1 per cent of Airbnb’s listings in Beijing available for the remainder of the month, according to its website. Hosts were informed by text message on Tuesday.
“Similar to action taken by other hospitality companies, Airbnb listings in certain areas in Beijing will be temporarily unavailable throughout October,” said Airbnb. “Guests with reservations during this period will receive full refunds.”
More than three-quarters of Beijing’s 21m residents live within the sixth ring road, according to the local government. “Beijing will typically be locked down during this politically sensitive event . . . to ensure there is no incident to distract from the change in power,” said Carly Ramsey, associate director of Control Risks, a consultancy.
William Bao Bean, partner at venture capital fund SOSV, believes it was a practical decision. “You don’t want people being able to rent apartments on high floors overlooking the city centre during the party congress,” he said.
China monitors visitors closely, requiring hotels to keep a record of guests’ identity documents and to register guests automatically with the local public security bureau. Foreigners must also report to local police when they stay at friends’ houses.
But the nascent home-sharing sector provides a loophole to this tracking system, since rooms can be booked without verifying identity. Hosts are not compelled by the apps to register guests with local police, although the law states they should register foreign guests.
“China tends to give a lot of grey area to tech companies, and will watch first, regulate later,” Mr Bean said. “But there is no negotiation around red lines, such as the party congress.”
Ms Ramsey said: “In China, regulatory enforcement is both a political and legal issue. The government can and will tell companies to halt operations. Foreign firms are generally surprised and left scrambling to deal with not having any revenue for weeks.”
Chinese home-sharing platform Tujia also confirmed that “the large majority of Beijing listings are not available until the beginning of November”. Domestic rival Xiaozhu has no listings available in the city centre for the rest of October.
The rapid growth of Airbnb, the second-highest valued US private company, has often caused issues with local regulators.
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