A Cathay Pacific Boeing plane lands at Hong Kong airport after it reopened following clashes between police and protesters, on Aug 14. Photo: REUTERS
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Crew describe climate of fear at Cathay Pacific after Hong Kong sackings

29 Comments
By Felix Tam and Jamie Freed

Pilots and cabin crew at Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways described a "white terror" of political denunciations, sackings and phone searches by Chinese aviation officials amid anti-government protests gripping the former British colony.

Cathay, founded by an American and an Australian during British rule in 1946, was caught in the middle of the crisis 11 days ago, when China demanded it suspend staff involved in the protest movement.

The firm agreed, firing two pilots, but has since been plunged into turmoil after CEO Rupert Hogg was replaced last week.

Another pilot, Jeremy Tam, who is also a pro-democracy lawmaker, said on Tuesday that he and others had quit the airline as the internal political pressure was intolerable.

"That (China's aviation regulator) has reached into Hong Kong and directly pressured a local airline is undoubtedly 'white terror,'" he wrote on his Facebook page, using a popular Hong Kong expression used to describe anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.

"There have been resignations from frontline staff to the company's CEO because of this political trial."

The airline confirmed Tam was no longer an employee and said it could not comment on internal staff matters. China's aviation regulator has not responded to Reuters' requests for comment.

CEO Hogg's surprise exit sent a chill through the company of 27,000, according to Reuters interviews with eight staff members, as well as posts on two unauthorised but popular staff-only Facebook pages that illustrate the pressure on workers.

"There is a 'white terror' in our company," one crew member at Cathay's regional subsidiary, Cathay Dragon, told Reuters at a railway station on her way home. "We feel really scared to talk political stuff, even for chit-chat.

"Some of the pro-Beijing people set up a Telegram group and post our personal information, like our addresses, phone numbers, if they discover that we support the movement on our own social media," she added, referring to use of the messenger app Telegram by both Cathay insiders and others who do not support the protests.

Hogg's departure highlights the pressure on the corporate sector in Hong Kong, the Asian base for many global businesses, trying to walk a tightrope between the protesters and China's Communist Party rulers in Beijing. Demonstrations began in early June to oppose an extradition bill and have swelled into demands, at times violent, for greater democracy for Hong Kong.

New Cathay Chief Executive Augustus Tang told staff on Monday that the company would bounce back from recent challenges, but that there was "zero tolerance for illegal activities" or policy breaches.

"Right now, we are one of the most watched companies in Hong Kong and indeed the world," he said in a memo seen by Reuters."The way every single one of us acts, not only at work serving our customers but also outside work - on social media and in everyday life - impacts how we are perceived as a company."

Some Hong Kong companies with Chinese state-controlled parent firms, including Huarong International and China CITIC Bank International, advised staff to avoid flying on Cathay where possible, according to internal memos seen by Reuters.

PHONE CHECKS

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that promised wide-ranging freedoms denied to citizens in the mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom to protest.

Many in the city believe Beijing has been eroding those freedoms. Organisers said 1.7 million people joined the most recent big anti-government protest in pouring summer rain on Sunday.

China's aviation regulator ordered Cathay on Aug. 9 to provide identification of crew on mainland-bound flights and those using Chinese airspace, and to bar any involved in the protests.

Five staff members said that crews landing in China had since been subjected to intrusive inspections from regulatory officials.

"Inspectors are checking the phones of the pilots and cabin crew, going so far as to check their WhatsApp messages and photo albums to see if there are any anti-China materials," a pilot told Reuters in a text message.

The regulator did not respond to faxes seeking comment.

None of eight airline staff Reuters interviewed at and around the airport, at protests or by phone would disclose their full names for fear of losing their jobs.

Cathay fired the two pilots over their participation in the demonstrations and issued a statement afterwards saying it was fully committed to the "one country, two systems" arrangement.

One flight attendant, who spoke to Reuters by phone, said staff initially responded with anger and disappointment over the sackings.

"But later on, when we saw how much a pressure the company is under from China, we are not angry anymore and we feel sympathetic," she said. "We understand it needs to please China."

Three colleagues, though, said many crew members were seeking to avoid Chinese routes, and some emphasised their fear that anything they say could be relayed to managers or to Beijing.

"If some tourists ask me about things happening in Hong Kong, I will only tell him some factual information, being neutral," one flight attendant said. "I don't want somebody to use it as an excuse to complain about me - Chinese tourists are everywhere."

Of the dozens of Cathay staffers approached for interview in recent weeks, including at random outside the airport and its Cathay City headquarters, none who was willing to speak with Reuters said they backed the actions of Beijing.

Two employee Facebook pages, CX Secrets and KA Secrets, named for the airline codes of Cathay and Cathay Dragon and once a forum for complaints about roster changes and coffee machines, are now flooded with messages debating the handling of the crisis.

Most are pleading for loyalty and silence.

"Cathay's today is Hong Kong's tomorrow. In order to secure this job, (we have to) be silent and continue compromising," one post said.

Others framed solidarity as a form of defiance.

"The company has to bend over to survive unfortunately, but we don't have to," wrote one Facebook poster. "We must unite more than ever to help regain public trust. If we don't, all 27,000 of us might be out of a job."

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

29 Comments
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People can vote with their feet. I see a large exodus of the richest and brightest fleeing Hong Kong. Many companies will do the same - but some cannot, súch as Cathey. However, due to the shortage of pilots worldwide, their pilots can, quite easily. An airline without pilots is not much of an airline.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

I will never bend to lose my freedom of speech.

Many surely cannot lose family they have in China...

Cathay will lose half its clients by siding with China. At least it lost me.

What you do out of work is personal.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

"We feel really scared to talk political stuff, even for chit-chat.

And there are those in the 'west' constantly attacking the media for presenting perspectives different from theirs while pushing for authoritarian systems.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Let's be fair. If you work anywhere else in the world and aren't a member of a labor union, then your freedom of speech only protects you from the govt. It doesn't protect you from your employer, your clients, your family, your friends, your neighbors, if they disagree with you.

Where I live, people can be fired for any reason, without cause.

People need to do what they need to do for themselves and their families. If that means tap dancing for your job to make the CCP happy, who am I to say they shouldn't?

It is easy to say you'd not cave in when you aren't actually impacted.

There are many low-level workers at Cathay. Baggage handlers, cleaners, cooks, gate people. I would suggest they should limit any use of electronic devices that can be traced back to their identity. Get a $40 phone, use that only for political things, not personal stuff, and only over wifi. Randomly change the MAC all the time for both the wifi and bluetooth (if you use that). Don't get a phone plan. Only turn it on away from your flat. keep it inside an RF cage when not in use. Never have your personal phone and this political phone on at the same time, in the same place.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Time to boycott Cathay. Phone searches? Is that even legal?

6 ( +6 / -0 )

How many reasons does the world need to sideline China and refuse to trade with it until the brutal CCP is deposed?

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Cathay has anyway  become less and less a top quality airline.  ANA to HK much better.  With this added taint, my guess they will continue to lose custom.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Boycott communist-supporting Cathay airlines. Awful company. If you really MUST go to HK, then ANA and JAL are far, far superior airlines anyway.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

People can vote with their feet. I see a large exodus of the richest and brightest fleeing Hong Kong. Many companies will do the same

I think the exodus will only increase, no matter how the Chinese react (short of full capitulation, which is impossible). Those with in-demand skills, those money and others will leave. Unemployment will soar. Hong Kong's day is over, sadly. China may follow, barring a massive change in government. Personally, I am sick of people and business supporting despotic regimes like China and Dubai. We should support democracies and starve the dictators.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

This is the reality of HK today, as the mainland is increasing pressure on the territory and its institutions to bow to their wishes, well in advance of the 2047 end of the "one party / two systems" construct.

And, to be clear, the PRC has already used their power and pressure to force ALL non-Chinese airlines to bend to their will by:

-- Forcing them to seek permission to traverse air space that the PRC has unilaterally decreed as its ADZ.

-- Forcing them to change their websites to reflection "Taiwan" as being part of China.

To the extent that the CP staff wish to fight this, there is only one way to do so. To actually participate in the demonstrations in such numbers, wearing their uniforms, that CP will have to make a choice: kowtow to the murderous dictators in Beijing and damage their operations, or decide to take a stand.

It is a high-stakes gambit and would be wholly dependent on a large percentage of staff participating, risking their jobs in the process.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

The Chinese government has started taking out propaganda ads on Facebook, to try to brainwash the (rest of the) world into believing it respects the human rights violations on the the million Uighur's they've imprisoned. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanmac/chinse-media-facebook-ads-xinjiang-uighur-propaganda

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Before laws, everyone is equal. Pro-violence doesn't make one special, pro-queen doesn't make one special, pro-demoncrazy doesn't make one special.

-13 ( +0 / -13 )

100% zero tolerance, as simple as that. Any patience toward violence means insensitivity toward peace.

-13 ( +0 / -13 )

AkieToday 11:31 am JST

100% zero tolerance, as simple as that. Any patience toward violence means insensitivity toward peace.

Why are you talking about violence ? The fired crews were protesting, peacefully.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

@Akie,

100% zero tolerance, as simple as that. Any patience toward violence means insensitivity toward peace.

When a government does not allow the people to choose its government and then tries to shut down anyone who tries to protest peacefully, those opposed have no choice but to resort to "revolutionary violence".

You know....

Like when Mao & Co used terrorism and violence to establish the PRC!!

9 ( +9 / -0 )

zones2surf, govt is govt, ignorance is ignorance, they are two different things. The HK govt is supported by 1.4 billion people, you just to have to bear with it. THAT IS THE ORDER.

-14 ( +0 / -14 )

@Akie,

zones2surf, govt is govt, ignorance is ignorance, they are two different things. The HK govt is supported by 1.4 billion people, you just to have to bear with it. THAT IS THE ORDER.

The ignorance is on the PRC CCP side. They do not speak for 1.4 billion people.

They speak for themselves, who wish to retain power at all costs.

Glad to see that you have proven that you do not favor democratic rule, only the dictatorial rule of the "party leaders" who cling to power and will do anything to do so!!

11 ( +11 / -0 )

zones2surf, if 90,594,000 membership CCP doesn't speak for 1.4 billion people, then who does ? Thugs on HK treat ? or losers in Taiwan ?

-15 ( +0 / -15 )

AkieToday 11:57 am JST

zones2surf, if 90,594,000 membership CCP doesn't speak for 1.4 billion people, then who does ?

Maybe those 1.4 billion people ?

9 ( +9 / -0 )

The people of Hong Kong have the power to decide who there leaders are. Lam just doesn't realize it yet.

The same applies to mainland China. The people have the power, but they don't realize it yet because the CCP have been blocking their discussion and voices.

Only govts afraid of their own people need to silence dissent and the sharing of ideas.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

One of the pilot has said:'Bravo HongKongers' during his message to the passengers in his flight !  That was the remarks he got fired!  This message is a kind of confrontation to China!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

President Xi is so afraid of the Cathay Pacific flight crew? Didn't realise they were such a dangerous bunch.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

papigiulioToday 08:42 am JST

Time to boycott Cathay. Phone searches? Is that even legal?

In China it is.

Once they landed in China they had no choice but to hand over their phones.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I hope the calls for democracy spread into the mainland.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Chinese government doesn't even need to hack into people's phones - they just search people's phones outright with no search warrants

Why hack when ya can just search? Who needs Snowden!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

President Xi and the other elites near the top of the CCP power tower all live in fear of any free thinking mainland Chinese learning anything about democracy.

Cathay is just the tip.

Wait until 5M people march in Beijing.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

papigiulioToday 08:42 am JSTTime to boycott Cathay. Phone searches? Is that even legal?

Time to boycott anything that the CCP would use against the HKers. They're trying to isolate HK before crushing them.

Personally, I am sick of people and business supporting despotic regimes like China and Dubai. We should support democracies and starve the dictators.

Yes, starve the dictators of NK, Saudi Arabia, Russia, even USA. The UN needs to slap sanctions on all these governments and China too.

30 years ago Communism was falling in Eastern Europe, ushering a promise of hope - and freedom. Remember?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Don't count on people within china to rebel, just look at those china nationals living in the western world bending the knee on twitter. You think people within china would risk it all without having the knowledge of history, freedom of speech, or a just and lawful system. The ones in the west can't and won't do anything even with the knowledge and safe house.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

zones2surf, if 90,594,000 membership CCP doesn't speak for 1.4 billion people, then who does

Shall I start speaking for you Akie? I'll say what I think you think, and tell everyone that. You don't even have to think.

Because that's how accurately the Chinese government represents it's people. I.E., it doesn't.

The government does not speak for the people. The government speaks for the government. The people have no voice at all, as it's been suppressed by the government.

It's a dictatorship, pure and simple. The CCP dictates, they do not govern.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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