Hong Kong Unions Urge Cathay Pacific to End ‘White Terror’

August 23, 2019 Updated: August 23, 2019

HONG KONG—Cathay Pacific Airways, which is caught in the crosswinds between authorities in Beijing and anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, must put an end to “all forms of white terror,” trade unions in the Chinese-ruled city said on Aug. 23.

The carrier has become the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after China demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who support, the demonstrations that have plunged the former British colony into a political crisis.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) called a news conference after the sudden dismissal of Rebecca Sy, the head of Cathay Dragon’s Airlines Flight Attendants’ Association, after a 17-year career.

Sy said she was fired, without explanation, after managers saw and confirmed her Facebook account. HKCTU said 14 people have been fired so far over the protests, and called Sy’s dismissal a “blatant act of suppression.”

“All the employees are being frightened, not just cabin crews, but even the management,” Sy said. “My colleagues are all terrified because of its white terror.”

White terror is a common expression to describe anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.

Cathay Pacific said in a statement Sy’s departure had nothing to do with her union leadership role or her union activities.

“Whilst we cannot comment on individual cases, when deciding whether to terminate an employee, we take into account all relevant circumstances including applicable regulatory requirements and the employee’s ability to perform his/her job,” the company said.

Shares of the airline were down more than 1 percent, lagging a 0.6 percent gain in the benchmark Hang Seng Index.

The Airport Authority said two employees had been terminated after “completion of internal procedures.” It did not elaborate.

Sy’s departure follows last week’s shock resignation of Chief Executive Rupert Hogg, the highest-profile corporate casualty of the unrest.

Cathay pilots and cabin crew have described a campaign of political denunciations, sackings and telephone searches by Chinese aviation officials.

Recent weeks have been extremely challenging for its employees, the Hong Kong carrier, which is 30 percent owned by Air China, said ahead of Friday’s news conference.

“We thank all our dedicated staff who are committed to serving our customers in a professional manner,” said James Tong, its director of corporate affairs.

The demonstrations, which have occasionally shut the airport and businesses in the Asian financial hub, still have broad support, despite some violent clashes between police and protesters.

HKCTU said “white terror” loomed for the entire aviation industry, and it demanded that Sy be immediately reinstated.

Walking a tightrope between the protests and political masters in Beijing, many Hong Kong firms are opting to toe the Communist Party line to avoid potential repercussions following the experience of Cathay Pacific Airways.

Protesters occupy the departure hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Aug. 12, 2019. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

‘We’re Back to the Era of Cultural Revolution’

Workers in other sectors, particularly in the financial industry, have also said they are afraid to even talk about the protests among colleagues or in message groups for fear they could be snitched to management if they voice support for the protest movement.

“Now the best way is to keep silent, because people could back-stab you for no obvious benefits,” said one person who said they were reported to management by a colleague.

One Hong Kong-based worker of a Chinese state-owned enterprise recently bragged in a WeChat chat group that he had been reporting employees who posted pro-democracy comments regarding the protests to human resources.

In extreme cases, some people said they had received calls from Chinese authorities after posting pro-protest comments on Facebook.

“It feels like we’re back to the era of Cultural Revolution,” said the executive of a large corporate, referring to the decade-long campaign unleashed by Mao Zedong on China in 1966, which encouraged people to inform on friends, colleagues and family members who did not follow the Communist Party line.

By Donny Kwok and Anne Marie Roantree