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Inside the “Culture of Fear” at Cathay Pacific

Inside the “Culture of Fear” at Cathay Pacific
Jeff Edwards

Cathay Pacific employees describe an increasingly mistrustful, suspicious and fraught work environment following pressure from Chinese regulators, a string of employee firings and the abrupt resignation of top airline executives. Some claim that merely voicing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has cost co-workers their livelihoods.

As anti-government protests enter a ninth consecutive month, Hong Kong International Airport (HKG)-based Cathay Pacific Airlines has increasingly been drawn into the fray. Now, the airline’s employees are going public with firsthand accounts of a workplace that has become rife with suspicion, mistrust and seething hostility. Some crew members and airport workers say that both pro-democracy advocates and government officials have sought to enlist the Hong Kong flag carrier as a pawn in the sometimes violent political dispute.

Pro-democracy advocates have forced Cathay into the spotlight by encouraging the airline’s workforce to honor a number of general strikes called in response to moves by officials seen as infringing on the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China’s autonomy. Meanwhile, protesters have repeatedly targeted the airport and transportation links to HKG as a means of focusing international attention on their plight.

After the airport was ordered closed for nearly two full days in August due to large crowds of protesters, HKG officials ran full-page ads begging demonstrators not to obstruct airport operations. Protesters created havoc with ground transportation to and from the facility despite the pleas.

“Spare our passengers further disruption,” one print ad read. “We again strongly urge protesters not to disrupt the journey of tens of thousands of travelers who use our airport every day.”

Earlier this summer, the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) reportedly told Cathay management that crew members alleged to have participated in the “illegal protests” would not be permitted to enter mainland China even while on duty. A number of the airline’s most senior executives, including CEO Rupert Hogg, are said to have resigned rather than supply Chinese officials with the names of employees believed to have participated in anti-government demonstrations.

Faced with pushback from government regulators, including stepped-up safety inspections and increased scrutiny of crew members upon entry to China, the new management team at Cathay soon took a decidedly harder line. Following a string of high profile firings of employees who had allegedly been outspoken in support for the demonstrators (including at least one Cathay Dragon cabin crew member who was reportedly terminated for “liking” a pro-democracy post on social media), executives served notice seeming to indicate in internal communications that merely voicing support for protesters could be grounds for termination. Further policy updates made clear that Cathay employees are expected to report coworkers suspected of supporting the protest movement.

“Some cabin crew support the government, and have given fellow workers’ names to the company who have talked about supporting the protests and thence been terminated,” an unnamed Cathay captain told CNN this week.  “The company has actively asked for whistleblowers to come forward, creating a divide amongst fellow employees. Everyone has deleted chat groups and social media (profiles) that have any mention of the protests. The cabin crew don’t even want to talk about the protests in the open, let alone admit they attend protests.”

To make matters worse for rank-and-file workers, the economic impact of the continuing unrest in the region has forced Cathay to tighten its belt at a time when job security is already tenuous. Following a report that tourism to Hong Kong has dropped by nearly 40 percent, airline officials announced the carrier had eliminated flights and introduced a hiring freeze as of September.

View Comments (12)


  1. pagophilus

    October 2, 2019 at 2:28 am

    The workplace is not the place for political activity and if you should also not engage in political debate if while doing so you are identifiable as a employee of an organization. So the culture of fear is not unusual.

  2. weero


    October 2, 2019 at 4:51 am

    At least CX has a strong monetary incentive to be intolerant on the matter.

    Not like companies that fire employees for wrong views on social media or still using the OK sign. They have no real excuse for being anti-freedom of expression.

  3. John Aldeborgh

    October 2, 2019 at 5:45 am

    Companies should stay out of politics. There is no upside to disenfranchising a huge demographic of your potential customer base. Taking it public will only drive foreign passengers away from the carrier. I’ve never personally has a bad experience with Cathay Pacific, I have always enjoyed their product.

  4. TambaTrio

    October 2, 2019 at 5:57 am

    Sensationalist. Just sit down for a moment and think of the position that CX and HK and its people are in… this is bound to have happened, and anyone would be a fool not to know that. What is CX, a mere airline suddenly going to do? Become a stalwart for democracy against big, bad, scary China? They are only a business for gods sake. A sensationalist title and writing that needs to create a basic and lazy “good vs evil”, rather than true exploration of dialectic. Plus a photograph of a rather “meek” looking CA to add to that click-bait title (down-trodden poor CA…living amidst fear…”get me the right kind of photo to set the mood for the piece!”) and the lazy piece of writing that follows. I wouldn’t say poor. Just tired-ass, lazy and hardly illuminating in any depth at all.

  5. chrisfwm

    October 2, 2019 at 6:11 am

    Didn’t our POTUS also want others to report who his whistle-blower is?

    I don’t envy Cathay’s situation, they are in an impossible spot, their business are relying to much on mainlanders. It’s unavoidable to be forced to make unpleasant choices.

    Maybe declare bankruptcy and see if UK gov wants to buy them, lol

  6. Loren Pechtel

    October 2, 2019 at 8:10 am

    @pagophilus Nothing says they are engaging in political activism in uniform or on the clock. Beijing is tracking them down and demanding they be fired.

  7. lifeseeker

    October 2, 2019 at 10:20 am

    Involving too much into politics, they deserve it. Sensationalist author

  8. OUTraveling

    October 2, 2019 at 10:44 am

    I have no interest in politics or the internal machinations of the PRC. However, my friend Rusty Shackleford (who looks A LOT like me) is a full supporter of the protests.

  9. Tharos

    October 2, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    Socialism, in any of its deceptive guises, hates dissent.

  10. midorosan

    October 2, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    Nowhere in the article is there mention of potentially life saving oxygen cylinders being sabotaged on aircraft or the divulging of confidential passenger details to the mob, a little research goes a long way before writing sensationalist headlines like this.

  11. Jackie_414

    October 3, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    We hereby cede California to the PRC in trade for Hong Kong. Hong Kong will be come a state with the other 49 states in the United States of America. California will become a province of the PRC.

    So declared, this 3rd day of October 2019.

  12. CEB

    October 4, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    TambaTrio – what would you expect of Edwards? His incompetence shines through once again.

    Tharos – agreed, all one needs do is observe the ‘elitist left’ here in America, should you disagree with any point you are immediately labeled racist, misogynist, or worse.

    We seem to have lost respect for individual thought and rights in the name of political correctness and leftist group think. Our politicians on BOTH sides of the aisle can’t even have a civil conversation, let alone find a way to work together for the common good. The only thing that matters is buying votes with venomous sound bites.

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