Protesters stuck posters outside a shopping mall in an August rally to support Cathay Pacific staff in Hong Kong
Hong Kong (AFP) - A fortnight ago Cathay Pacific said it "wouldn't dream" of muzzling the views of its 27,000 Hong Kong staff, but after the dismissal of several pro-democracy supporters among its workforce under Chinese pressure, employees say this is exactly what has happened.
Hong Kong, a financial centre that was once a byword for stability and prosperity, has been plunged into an unprecedented crisis by anti-government protests, framed by fears over growing Chinese influence.
The chaos put airline Cathay in a bind over whether to allow its staff to take part in -- or voice support for -- the massive demonstrations, or risk losing its China-facing business.
In mid-August, the carrier's position seemed unequivocal and in line with the city's culture of free speech.
"We employ 27,000 different staff in Hong Kong... we have virtually every opinion on every issue amongst our staff," Chairman John Slosar told reporters.
"We certainly wouldn't dream of telling them what they have to think about something."
But the company's tune soon changed as a move by China's aviation regulator to bar staff supporting protests from working on flights to the mainland or through Chinese airspace began to bite.
Four Cathay staff were fired -- including two pilots.
A fifth, Rebecca Sy, a union organiser and cabin crew for Cathay Dragon, a regional arm, says she was dropped from a Chinese flight rota and then dismissed a day later without explanation.
"It's now like feeding a wolf... how many people do they have to fire to feel content?" Sy told AFP on Wednesday at a protest against Cathay's about-turn.
Crew fear a witch-hunt is underway for anyone who has expressed support for the protests, which started in June but show no sign of abating.
"We're being monitored. It's obvious," a staff member from the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union told AFP, requesting anonymity.
"I'm really afraid of the system of ratting people out."
Some staff who posted pro-protest views on social media have since deleted their accounts as self-censorship takes root and employees scramble to cover up political views that could lead to the sack.
"People are worried about their jobs," another cabin crew member said, also declining to be named.
"We used to work as a team with no boundary. But now, no-one trusts each other. Inflight no-one talks much about Hong Kong."
Rumours abound of cabin crew flying into China only to be contacted at their hotels and ordered to return to Hong Kong.
It is not clear if Cathay has run its own audit for staff who have supported protests or if Chinese authorities have collated a list.
But the internal turmoil is a sign of the risks facing Hong Kong businesses as protests grind on.
- Just business -
Cathay reiterated a warning to staff ahead of Wednesday's unsanctioned protest.
"There is a zero-tolerance approach to any support for or participation in illegal protests, violent activities or overly radical behaviour," the carrier said in a statement.
In the space of a few weeks the fallout from the protests has seen Cathay's CEO resign, its share price tumble and the working environment deteriorate.
"The atmosphere is kind of sick," a Cathay Pacific flight attendant who also spoke on the condition of anonymity told AFP.
"Some crew already treat every flight as their last."
By toeing Beijing's line, critics say Cathay has trashed its reputation as a totemic Hong Kong company, which has grown over 72 years in parallel with the city's status as a gateway to Asia.
Cathay's travails reveal Beijing's "very blatant" strategy towards big companies based in the semi-autonomous financial centre, says Willy Lam, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"It means your business in China is being held hostage," he told AFP.
Experts say around 20 percent of Cathay flights -- including on Cathay Dragon -- are in China, while Chinese passengers travel to Hong Kong for the carrier's global network. Cathay also runs one of the world's largest cargo businesses.
But it is cold business logic rather than political pressure that is guiding the company's thinking, according to some analysts.
"China is now a very big market and companies cannot ignore that," Chinese University economist Terence Tai-Leung Chong said.
"They may feel they need to do something to express their view on the current situation of Hong Kong."