Hong Kong-Li Jiacong's boss showed him two Facebook posts. One of them criticized the police's handling of anti-government demonstrations. Since June this year, demonstrations have left Hong Kong in turmoil. Mr. Li is a flight attendant at Cathay Pacific. The bosses asked him: Did he write the post?
Mr. Li denied it, even though he wrote the post. However, last Thursday, one week after the inquiry, he joined the ranks of Cathay Pacific's fired staff because they expressed political views that could anger the Chinese government.
I never thought that the company would make me difficult in my political orientation, said Mr. Li, a 30-year-old passenger attendant, who had worked for Cathay Dragon, a regional airline owned by Cathay Pacific, for three years before being fired half.
Cathay Pacific is fighting for survival, and its employees are at risk of becoming a victim. The Hong Kong-based airline is probably the most precarious one among local global companies, and they are caught between Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters and the Chinese government. The latter called these protesters mobs. China wants business to stand on its own side and threaten companies that don't do this to keep them out of this huge and growing market.
Beijing threatened that unless Cathay Pacific manages its employees, it will shut down mainland airspace. But many of Cathay Pacific ’s 26,000 employees in Hong Kong sympathize with protesters.
The result is what many Cathay employees call "white terror," a name reminiscent of the bloody anti-communist crackdown that has taken place in Taiwan in the past few decades. More than 20 current and former employees described the atmosphere of fear in the company. Many people have closed their social media accounts or changed photos on their profiles in case they are recognized by managers.
You can feel the distance between colleagues, said Tong Jimin, a 32-year-old Cathay Pacific flight attendant, who was also a rescuer during a protest in Hong Kong. "I don't trust people I don't know because I'm not sure if they will report me to management. It's like 'Big Brother is watching you', especially when you are in the air."
Those who work on flights to the mainland say they face stricter scrutiny from Chinese aviation officials. After landing, the officials searched the cabin carefully to see if there were foreign publications reporting on the protests, and also put employees under tedious inspections.
It is unclear how many employees were fired or suspended. Cathay Pacific did not respond to several requests for comment. Cathay Pacific condemned the violent protests in a previous statement, expressed support for the Hong Kong government and police, and said that the company had no choice but to comply with China's security requirements.
Cathay Pacific has rooted in Hong Kong for more than 70 years, the company said in a recent statement. "We make Hong Kong our home, grow with Hong Kong, and work hard to promote Hong Kong's future."
Wednesday, Cathay Pacific said it would lower its growth plan on the ground that passenger traffic fell in August. The problems facing the company may continue. Although Hong Kong leaders have withdrawn the draft law that triggered the protest, which would allow extradition of suspects to the mainland, the protests continue because of other issues.
Protests in Hong Kong and Beijing ’s growing willingness to intervene in Hong Kong ’s affairs may profoundly change the way people work and do business in this Asian financial capital. For example, Cathay Pacific is controlled by Swire Pacific. Swire is one of the few business groups with a history dating back to the early British colonial era in Hong Kong. Non-Chinese executives have long dominated the company. As the company relies heavily on its Chinese business, it is facing increasing pressure to show loyalty.
如果 "If foreign companies want better access to the Chinese market in order to do business better and easier, they need to meet China's nationalist preferences as much as possible," said Chen Zhiwu, a professor of economics at the University of Hong Kong. "Considering this background, Chinese executives with China as their hometown are more likely to establish better personal relationships with officials or other corporate executives on the mainland."
Last month, as Beijing put increasing pressure on Cathay Pacific, the company appointed 60-year-old Cathay Pacific and its too-old employee Deng Jianrong as the new CEO, replacing Rupert Hogg, the company's only leader Two years of executives were born in the UK.
Cathay Pacific also sent a strong signal to employees that the company would not tolerate public support for protests. Managers reissued company guidelines and asked employees to disclose each other. Cathay Pacific has fired a pilot and two staff members who were arrested during a protest. The two staff members were accused of leaking information about the Hong Kong police ’s private trip to the mainland to participate in a football match. The leaks have angered Chinese media when accusing the other party of malicious collection of personal information (doxxing).
In recent days, three Cathay Pacific flights found that the oxygen cylinders on board were evacuated. If the plane depressurizes, the crew will use these oxygen cylinders. Local news media suspected that this was caused by intentional damage by employees. The tension was further intensified. Cathay Pacific said it had suspended the crew's work in connection with the flights and is investigating the incident.
Cathay Pacific's relationship with employees is not always harmonious. The company had barely avoided strikes by flight attendants due to pay issues in 2012 and 2015. Just last year, the company had stated that it would abandon a generally hated policy that requires female flight attendants to wear skirts.
But now and former employees describe a once more open and collaborative workplace. Employees have been encouraged to admit mistakes and rarely worry about punishment so they can discuss how to improve their performance. The crew had publicly discussed political and other sensitive issues.
This company has trained us in teamwork, said 36-year-old flight attendant Katherine Sin, who has been a flight attendant for 9 years. "Our motto was once 'People. They make an airline.'. But now everyone is stabbing others behind."
“这家公司曾对我们进行团队合作培训，”36岁的乘务员凯瑟琳·冼(Katherine Sin)说，她当乘务员已经9年了。“我们的座右铭曾经是‘以人为本，人成航线’(People. They make an airline.)。但是现在每个人都在背后捅别人一刀。”
Ms. Chung said that two weeks after He Zuo's resignation, Cathay Pacific's management called her to Cathay City, a corporate glass office building not far from Hong Kong Airport. They showed her screenshots of her Facebook and Instagram accounts with text criticizing the police. A screenshot reads, "If you still support the government and the police, I don't think you can call yourself a person." She said all these posts were posted before He Zuo resigned.
Ms. Xun denied that the accounts belonged to her, even though they belonged to her. She said she felt she would be fired immediately if she acknowledged her account number, and she did not violate company policies. She was fired last Thursday.
I dedicate everything to the company, Ms. 说 said. "I used to love this company. I once proudly told others that I am a flight attendant of Cathay Pacific Airways. But now I can't say that again. I am sad."
Employees were also asked what they wrote on more private occasions.
Joi Lam, the 36-year-old flight attendant who worked at Cathay Pacific for 12 years, said she was called to attend an emergency management meeting on August 30. The managers showed her two screenshots from a private group she had set up on WhatsApp for colleagues who were also mothers, in which she suggested buying helmets, masks, food and other supplies for protesters.
Like other employees interviewed by The New York Times, she initially denied that she wrote these posts. She was later fired.
I think I'm just an employee number for the company, said Ms. Lin, who believes someone in the WhatsApp group has reported her posts to management. "Companies can remove anyone from the system without hesitation."
Several employees said crew members who flew to mainland China faced more scrutiny from domestic regulators, but noted that attention had diminished in recent days. Some staff described situations including longer delays at mainland airports than normal, and supervisors searching inside the cabin for magazines with reports of protests. Some staff members have to be searched by security officials, even those who are about to return.
Fearing retaliation, several Cathay Pacific employees requested anonymity. Many employees say they find it difficult to find similar jobs elsewhere. Departing employees can only try their luck on foreign airlines, regional airlines or Chinese state-owned airlines.
Mr. Tong, the flight attendant, did not request anonymity. He said he expected to be fired for publicly talking about Cathay Pacific. He said it was worth the risk.
希望 "I hope to protect my colleagues by making the company public," Mr. Tong said. "What use is this job without the right to speak freely?"