Cathay denounced for firing Hong Kong staff after pressure from China

City also sees separate rally against alleged sexual violence by police against participants in protest movement

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong on Wednesday to denounce Cathay Pacific for firing staff after it came under pressure from Beijing – describing the case as symptomatic of the wider intimidation of protesters and sympathisers.

Businesses, pushed to voice support for the authorities, are facing a growing backlash from employees and customers who see the pressure as part of a broad strategy to wear down opposition after two and a half months of protests sparked by a controversial extradition bill.

“It’s not just an issue for Cathay,” said one demonstrator, a retiree who gave her name as Miss Chan. “They want to [persuade] the public that if you go on a demonstration you may be punished; even if you are not arrested, you might lose employment opportunities. They are trying to expand the fear, which is already huge in Hong Kong.”

Protesters, many from the aviation industry, rallied in the financial district before marching to the headquarters of Swire Pacific, the airline’s controlling shareholder.

Later on Wednesday night thousands of protesters attended a separate rally against alleged sexual violence by police against participants in the movement.

Rupert Hogg resigned as Cathay Pacific chief executive
Rupert Hogg resigned as Cathay Pacific chief executive. Photograph: Jérôme Favre/EPA

The airline was caught in the political storm when one of its pilots was charged over a protest. Its chairman initially said that “we certainly wouldn’t dream of telling [our staff] what they have to think about something”. But China’s aviation authority told the airline it would have to remove any staff involved in or supportive of protests from flights over its airspace. A state-owned bank rated Cathay stock a strong sell and Chinese firms withdrew business.

The arrested pilot was sacked and the airline’s chief executive, Rupert Hogg, quit – news which, strikingly, first emerged in Chinese state media. Last week, the chair of the flight attendants union at the subsidiary Cathay Dragon said she had been sacked after managers presented her with copies of protest-related Facebook posts; the Confederation of Trade Unions plans a legal challenge. Cathay, which said that the measure was not related to her union activities, reiterated before the rally that it upheld Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms but had a zero-tolerance approach “to any support for or participation in illegal protests, violent activities or overly radical behaviour”.

The pressure on the firm was unprecedented, said David Webb, a shareholder activist and founder of Webb-site, which reports on Hong Kong affairs, adding that he was dismayed rather than surprised by the outcome. “Individually I understand why companies don’t speak up. Collectively they should,” he said, suggesting chambers of commerce should take a stronger stand.

Rebecca Sy, who was dismissed as chair of the flight attendants union at Cathay Dragon, speaks at a press conference in Hong Kong
Rebecca Sy, who was dismissed as chair of the flight attendants union at Cathay Dragon, speaks at a press conference. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, described the extent of the pressure on companies as a “turning point”.
Last weekend the MTR rail system closed stations along protest routes for the first time. The company and the Hong Kong government – its majority shareholder – said it was simply protecting staff and passengers, but activists noted that the decision came shortly after mainland state media accused it of having “arranged special trains for rioters to escape” and asked whether it was “an accomplice to rioters”. Though the business community was hostile to the extradition bill, some tycoons have recently emerged at pro- government rallies.

Some protesters are boycotting the restaurants, stores or shopping malls of such figures as a result. But for many businesses, the calculation is simple. Around a fifth of Cathay’s business is thought to be to the mainland – where Swire also has substantial interests – and almost all other flights pass through its airspace.

Even people rallying against Cathay admitted they did not expect it to reverse its policy. “Of course we won’t change its mind – but it’s also sending a message to other companies that we cannot let this white terror spread,” said Marcel Chan, who works in the transport industry.

Many fear that retaliation will be even more likely when the protests eventually end, with companies and institutions pushed to marginalise participants or let them go.

“If we don’t protest now we won’t be allowed to in future,” said a teacher who had turned out to support the aviation workers. “They want to control education, too.”

Universities have long been under pressure. On Wednesday the overseas edition of the state-run People’s Daily accused some Hong Kong teachers of planting radical ideas in the minds of students and said those with “no ethics” should be sacked.

Meanwhile thousands of protesters overflowed from a park in the central business district on Wednesday night to rally against police harassment of female protesters arrested at anti-government demonstrations.

Many in the female-dominated crowd scrawled #protesttoo on their bodies in lipstick while others donned purple ribbons and waved purple lights in a sign of solidarity with women who say they have been groped by police officers or abused in detention over the past three months.

Headlining the rally was a female protester who at a press conference last week publicly accused police of indecent assault.

She described how she had been aggressively strip-searched after her arrest. The woman said she had then undergone a humiliating cavity search by two female officers only to discover a handful of male officers were waiting immediately outside, according to Hong Kong Free Press.

The protester spoke of her intense shame during the encounter. She did not disclose her identity, was dressed in a mask, sunglasses, hat and black sweatshirt, and asked for reporters to refer to her by a pseudonym – reflecting the fact that sexual harassment and gender-based violence remain largely taboo subjects for many Hongkongers.

There have only been a handful of public #metoo cases in the conservative city in recent years; the most high-profile case, of the athlete Vera Lui, ended in acquittal for her coach after she accused him of sexual assault.

Police violence, however, appears to have begun a city-wide conversation about sexual harassment, as both men and women carried signs with slogans such as “Stop Hong Kong police’s use of sexual violence!”

While men have dominated a number of anti-government rallies over the past three months, according to a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, female representation has averaged around 45% at 12 major protests.

Wednesday’s rally was the first event to specifically target women since demonstrations began in early June.

“I would say our culture is ‘women should stay behind and guys to the front’, so I hope this is an opportunity for us to stand out internationally,” said protester Aqua Wong, who had scrawled #protesttoo on her chest above her black outfit.

Other protesters reiterated their calls for an independent inquiry into police violence. While the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, has promised a fact finding study into police tactics, she has failed to deliver on public demand for a formal inquiry led by a judge.

Protester Pas Lek said she thought it was “fishy” that the government had failed to set up an independent review despite social media posts and videos of women being mistreated, including a widely shared clip of a woman whose skirt was pushed up exposing her genitals as she was aggressively arrested.

“If the police or the government insisted the police didn’t do [anything wrong] then why don’t they set up an independent investigation council assessing that?” asked Lek.

Mass protests began in Hong Kong on 9 June against a legislative bill that would have allowed for residents to stand trial in mainland China. Many protesters felt this bill would infringe on the city’s autonomy, promised until 2047, under the “one country, two systems” agreement with Beijing.

Protests, however, show no sign of ending even after Lam promised she would not move forward with the bill.


Tania Branigan and Erin Hale in Hong Kong

The GuardianTramp

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