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Turbulence at Cathay Pacific: China’s threats loom over one of Asia’s leading airlines

A Cathay Pacific plane lands at Hong Kong International Airport. The airline’s cabin crew members and other employees have described a climate of fear and mistrust caused by China’s strict oversight. (Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — Seats upright, belts on and tray tables up. As the pilot announced “30 minutes to landing,” the cabin crew on the Cathay Dragon flight to Chengdu, China, ran through their usual checklist. Then they rushed to the rear of the jet for a new precaution: They locked their smartphones in sales carts, hiding the devices between bottles of perfume and whiskey.

As the Chinese state zeroes in on individuals suspected of supporting ongoing protests against Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong, it has singled out Cathay Pacific, the flagship Hong Kong airline that is among the city’s biggest employers and most globally recognized brands, subjecting its staff to unprecedented scrutiny.

“We are panicked,” said one flight attendant who has worked for the airline for seven years.

Airline staff describe a climate of fear and mistrust in their ranks, as Chinese officials target flight crews with thorough searches of their luggage and personal devices — including deleted files and secure messaging apps — for any signs of protest sympathies. Some have had their phones’ content downloaded by Chinese authorities. Others have seen their private information published in public messaging groups, their anti-
government inclinations laid bare.

The Washington Post interviewed almost a dozen current Cathay Pacific employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, and reviewed several internal staff memos, social media groups and messaging channels to compose a portrait of this time of turmoil at the flag carrier.

Pressure from Beijing forced out Cathay’s chief executive, Rupert Hogg, along with one of his deputies on Friday. Two pilots have been fired, along with two ground workers. This week a third pilot, who made an in-flight announcement of support for Hong Kong, left the company under unclear circumstances, according to several employees.

“I feel so scared, like we have lost our ability to voice our opinions, our concerns and our hopes without feeling the authority of China,” said another flight attendant, age 26.

The tumult at Cathay has implications that stretch beyond this current wave of protest, analysts say. It has sent the clearest signal yet that even global conglomerates based in the territory can be compelled to bow to Beijing’s will — leading to doubts about whether the “one country, two systems” arrangement that allows Hong Kong a degree of autonomy within China can continue to hold. 

Cathay’s predicament “shows that when China wants to put the pressure on, it doesn’t really matter whether you are based in Hong Kong or whether you are based in Shanghai. This is all still China,” said Duncan Innes-Ker, the regional director for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“I think there are a lot of companies that are nervous that they would find it hard to resist that sort of pressure if it came on them,” he added.

The unease at Cathay demonstrates how the crackdown on the months-long protest movement has not spared corporations in the Asian financial hub.

Beijing has fired a “warning shot” at Cathay, said Andrew Polk, a partner at the Trivium China business consultancy, and has sent “a message not just to Cathay but also the rest of the Hong Kong business elite.”

Cathay Pacific did not respond to detailed emailed questions. The Chinese aviation authority did not respond to multiple phone calls and faxed questions.

Founded in 1946 by two pilots — an American and an Australian — who flew supplies during World War II, the airline now employs some 32,000 people worldwide. Historical photographs of its planes landing are sold at gift shops in Hong Kong.

In the early days of Hong Kong’s leaderless summer of protest, aviation workers, including Cathay staff, were among those at the forefront, understanding that they had a disproportionate ability to get the attention of their government.

They participated in a general strike that forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, angled for a three-day airport sit-in that would further embarrass Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her backers in Beijing, wrote open letters and set up secure messaging groups to organize further action.

Beijing’s impatience with their involvement became clear on Aug. 9 when China’s aviation regulator issued a warning directed at Cathay of a “major aviation safety risk.” The airline had failed to bar staff who took part in “violent protests” from flying to the mainland or through Chinese airspace, the regulator said, adding that it wanted the airline to make swift changes.

Not complying wasn’t something Cathay could afford. Cathay Pacific passenger and cargo routes, and those flown by sister brand Cathay Dragon and low-cost arm Hong Kong Express, include more than two dozen mainland cities. Passengers from the mainland account for a significant chunk of revenue. State-owned Air China is Cathay’s second-biggest shareholder, after the Hong Kong- and London-based Swire group.

The regulator’s warning also extended to any Cathay aircraft flying through the portion of Chinese airspace that surrounds Hong Kong, complicating travel to other parts of the world.

“A large degree of [Cathay’s] business relies on access to Chinese airports and air routes,” Innes-Ker said. “The future growth prospects for the business are very closely tied to its expansion in China.”

But at least six emails from ­Cathay management warning against illegal protest participation and urging compliance with Chinese authorities have come since Aug. 9, all of which were obtained by The Post. The latest was an internal memo sent by new chief executive Augustus Tang on Monday, stating that the company would comply “100%” with all directives issued by Chinese aviation regulators.

“The way every single one of us acts, not only at work serving our customers but also outside of work — on social media and in everyday life — impacts how we are perceived as a company,” he wrote.

The past two weeks have also brought scrutiny — and what some believe to be harassment — of Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon crews flying to mainland cities. Phones and bags are being searched upon landing at cities from Hangzhou to Xi’an. When Cathay employees pushed back, their company sent a note on Aug. 17 saying authorities “have the right to inspect personal electronic devices.”

“We can’t say no,” one crew member said.

Many are now trying to swap routes to avoid flying to the mainland altogether. 

“We don’t think what the company is doing is supporting or protecting us,” said the flight attendant who has worked at Cathay for seven years. “We think our personal safety is in danger.”

Cathay crew flying to Chinese cities in recent weeks detailed how Chinese aviation officials have recently started challenging the airworthiness of their aircraft and accusing them of lax security standards. The hours-long checks are new, crew said, and appear to be a way to deliberately stall flights from leaving on time as a way of pressuring the airline.

What has scared employees most is a Telegram channel with almost 13,000 members that claims it is collecting information on protesters to pass along to China’s Ministry of State Security, according to the group’s description. Set up in July, the group has since changed its focus from protesters in general to specifically tracking airline and aviation staff, posting photos of them in their uniforms alongside social media posts in which they express support for the movement.

One post reads, “Stupid flight attendant of Cathay,” followed by her full name, which The Post has withheld for her privacy, and pictures of her with her young child. “She has even sent her little kid to the protest!”

Staff members are “very, very panicked because of this” Telegram channel, said one Cathay ground worker. “I’m 42 years old and I’m just panicked like a teenager.”

“Even today on my flight, a very long flight of 12 to 13 hours, no one in-flight is talking about politics,” said one flight attendantspeaking over Telegram from the United States. If they dare broach the subject, he added, “we will ask beforehand, ‘Are you supporting the protests?” just very softly.”

When the crew was huddled in a briefing room before a recent flight took off, one of the flight attendants made it a point to introduce herself as the wife of a police officer. The rest of the crew fell silent, a flight attendant present said, and barely spoke on the journey.

Jeremy Tam, a pro-democracy lawmaker, resigned from his position at Cathay on Monday, a difficult decision he said he made to shield the company from further political attacks. Tam was a pilot at the airline until 2016, when he switched over to a consultancy role.

“This is a company I love,” he said in an interview. “And now [authorities] are destroying the company just like that, over freedom of speech and political views?”

One 24-year-old flight attendant pushed back on the notion that as a Cathay employee he should be barred from political protest, stressing that crews have been professional throughout.

“When we are on the flight, we won’t say, ‘Do you like chicken or beef? And by the way, please support Hong Kong.’ We are professionals,” he said. “But we should have the freedom to join any protest, we should have our freedom of speech when we land.”

“Our company, they have joined with China against our freedom,” he added.

Gerry Shih and Lyric Li in Beijing and Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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