The giddy headlines when Hilton Hotels announced recently that it is selling the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan to a Chinese insurance conglomerate for a tidy $1.9bn (£1.2bn) were perhaps a tad naïve. Did they not wonder if a special addendum might be added to any sale contract under the special heading of “espionage”?
If not then, well they have now and “they” in this case would be the US government which apparently isn’t altogether comfortable with China taking control of a hotel that serves as a base of operations for US diplomats during the UN General Assembly meeting every September, and provides shelter for the US President during that week, as well as being a full-time residence for the US Ambassador to the UN, currently Samantha Power.
As part of the deal with Anbang Insurance, Hilton would continue to run the Waldorf Astoria for the next 100 years while the entire property would undergo a renovation to return it “to its historic grandeur”.
That sounds nice. Until you see all those open floorboards, ceilings and walls and the new wiring that will be laid. Half a warehouse of surveillance gizmos could be installed just as quick as you like. See that lovely clock in the middle of the lobby? Perfect for a camera.
No one is saying anything like that out loud, of course. Washington and Beijing have already spent enough energy this year accusing each other of spying. But, clearly, the alarm bells at the State Department are ringing.
“We are currently in the process of reviewing the details of the sale and the company’s long-term plans for the facility,” said Kurtis Cooper, spokesman for the US Mission to the UN.
One option would be for the US to look elsewhere for its UN-related needs. As it happens, the lease for Ms Power’s eerie at the top of the Waldorf Towers, which is attached to the main property, expires next year. But it’s hard to think of any other hostelry in New York that ticks all the boxes the way the Waldorf does, even down to its position on Park Avenue that can accommodate the mighty traffic shemozzle created when the President comes and goes.
Nor is it just the US that will be wondering what kind of access the purchase of the hotel by the Anbang Group might give China’s intelligence service. Plenty of other heads of state and government favour its luxurious accommodations over those of any other Manhattan hotel when they are in town.
On any day of the UN week, you are likely to bump into more premiers and presidents under that lobby clock than at the UN itself. No doubt many enjoy the salad named after the establishment – the Waldorf, containing diced red-skinned apples, celery, and mayonnaise (chopped walnuts were added later).
At the least, the US is likely to demand very close oversight of the plans for renovation and its execution. “The State Department takes seriously the security of its personnel, their work spaces and official residences,” Mr Cooper said. “We are constantly evaluating our security protocols and standard operating procedures to ensure the safety and security of our information and personnel.”Reuse content