Cathay Pacific fired a cabin crew union leader on Friday, the latest casualty in a fast-spreading “white terror” as mass protests in Hong Kong continue into their third month. Rebecca Sy, head of the Cathay Dragon flight attendant’s association, said she lost her job of 17 years, without explanation, after managers saw and confirmed her Facebook account, which included messages in favour of the protests.
“All the employees are being frightened, not just cabin crews, but even the management,” Ms Sy told reporters. “My colleagues are all terrified because of its white terror.”
“White terror” is a term used to describe a slew of events that create a climate of fear particularly as companies and employees worry of serious repercussions for voicing their views.
Her departure follows a surprise resignation last week by CEO Rupert Hogg, reported first by Chinese state media, underlining the political nature of the decision.
Cathay has borne the brunt of Beijing’s anger as authorities look to punish companies with any link to the Hong Kong protests – a direct challenge to the power of the Communist Party.
In the crackdown, companies and employees could face serious repercussions for voicing their views.
Hong Kong subway operator MTR has also come under fire for arranging additional trains to allow protesters to travel home, accused of “colluding with rioters” in Chinese state media.
Beijing authorities have long put the squeeze on companies over political issues by encouraging its 1.4 billion citizens to snub various brands or by throwing up a number of regulatory roadblocks – a move that can have devastating consequences for even the biggest firms.
Simon Cheng, 28, a British consular official in Hong Kong and permanent resident of the city has been detained for two weeks in mainland China for allegedly visiting prostitutes.
Under Chinese law, Mr Cheng should have been released today after a 15-day administrative period but at time of publication he was still in detention.
Hong Kong police said on Friday that they did not know Mr Cheng’s whereabouts. Protests in Hong Kong first kicked off over an extradition proposal that would have exposed people to China’s murky legal and judicial system, where authorities have also in the past detained foreigners to express political displeasure.
Two Canadians – Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur – were detained in China last year during Beijing’s diplomatic dispute with Ottawa over its arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
It is widely viewed that both men – who are still being held and have been charged with spying – are being used as political pawns.
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A number of multinationals operating in Hong Kong have sought to stress their political neutrality to avoid their businesses being targeted and to protect staff from arbitrary detention.
Earlier this week, the world’s “big four” accounting firms came under attack after an anonymous group claiming to be made up of their employees took out a full-page newspaper advertisement to express support for protests in Hong Kong and condemn the firms for remaining silent on the issue.
Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and Pricewaterhouse Coopers all sought to distance themselves from the advertisement, saying it didn’t represent the companies’ views.
But Chinese state media had already seized on the situation, calling for the firms to identify and sack the employees behind the ad.
FinnAir has also issued a warning to staff to remember to “keep work and politics separate,” reported the South China Morning Post, over concerns that any link to the protests might lead to a customer backlash or flight cancellations in China, its second-largest market for long-haul travel.
“China is obviously putting pressure on companies to ensure that they all hold the same political views,” said Keenan Chuk, 30, a finance manager who attended a lunchtime rally or accountants in Hong Kong’s central business district Friday.
“I am concerned that I will be fired,” he said, adding that “we still have to fight for our rights.” Even universities have warned students against discussing politics and participating in rallies.
“In a modern society, education should be free from politics so as to alleviate the escalation of anxiety and avoid the divisive society caused by chaos,” according to a statement from the City University of Hong Kong issued earlier this month.
Some banks are also now taking precautionary measures, purchasing full page ads in newspapers to affirm their support for the government.
Edwin, 26, an accountant who declined to give his last name, said senior partners in his firm had invited junior employees to lunch that day in an attempt to dissuade people from attending Friday’s protest.
But he participated in the demonstration anyway, turning up again in the evening to join a human chain meant to evoke the Baltic Way, when two million lined up across three countries to protest Soviet rule in 1989.
“In the industry, we switch firms quite often,” he shrugged.
Hong Kong police came under renewed pressure on Friday when officers were accused of conducting an unnecessary strip search on a female protester.
The alleged victim appeared at a press conference dressed in all black with a black face mask, cap and sunglasses.
Facing the cameras in front of a "#MeToo" sign, she claimed she was arrested weeks ago at a protest against the now-abandoned extradition bill and was admitted to hospital for injuries she suffered that night.
By her account, one officer patted her thighs with a pen, instructing her to open her legs wider after ordering her to take off all her clothes in a police cell.
The police said their body search procedures had not changed during the recent outbreak of citywide protests.
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