Companies, Celebrities Bow to Beijing over HK

Companies, Celebrities Bow to Beijing over HK

As protests against a proposed extradition law and the subsequent official response continue to roil Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific airline has found itself in the center of the turmoil, subject to an assault from Beijing that is “unprecedented in its speed and scope,” according to The Economist. Chinese authorities have pressured the company to release names and details of staff members who participated in or supported the protests, leading to the resignation or firing of CEO Rupert Hogg, his deputy, and several pilots and other officials.

At Beijing’s behest, the company has warned its staff against using social media, Danny Lee reports for the South China Morning Post:

In its latest notice to staff, the city’s flag carrier explained how it was fulfilling conditions imposed by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) on August 9, which included a ban on aircrew who joined or supported illegal protests from operating flights to mainland China, or using Chinese airspace.

The company reminded staff it would take a “zero tolerance approach” to those taking part in illegal activities, and any employee who did so could be fired.

But the carrier could not say what constituted support for illegal protests, violent action or overly radical behaviour, as it said it was a complex issue with no guidelines explaining the criteria.

[…] The company also said “work- and non-work-related social media usage” might breach the CAAC notice.

“Depending on the context, this may include, but is not restricted to, creating and posting content, sharing content and/or comment on the posts of others,” it added. [Source]

Today, reports claim that Rebecca Sy, president of the airlines’ flight attendant association, has been dismissed for posts she made on social media:

At the Washington Post, Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin report on additional pressures faced by Cathay staff:

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.

[…] “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. [Source]

The personnel changes at Cathay were made after British billionaire Merlin Swire, head of the Swire Pacific conglomerate of which Cathay Pacific is a part, was summoned to Beijing. Danny Lee reports for SCMP:

Swire was told in no uncertain terms that management changes were needed at Cathay Pacific, a source said.

Another source put it this way: “Merlin had to save Cathay to save Swire.” Swire Group is involved in everything from property and aviation to beverages, shipping, agriculture and considerably more.

Four days later, on Friday, came the shock resignation of Cathay Pacific Group CEO Rupert Hogg, well liked and credited with turning the airline’s fortunes around during his two years in the job. His deputy, Paul Loo Kar-pui, also resigned. [Source]

Some have noted that Swire’s willingness to so quickly accede to Beijing’s demands may be due to the company’s corporate culture:

Felix Tam and Jamie Freed of Reuters report that the pressure from Beijing has directly led to the resignation of Cathay pilots and other staff:

Another pilot, Jeremy Tam, who is also a pro-democracy lawmaker, said on Tuesday that he and others had quit the airline as the internal political pressure was intolerable.

“That (China’s aviation regulator) has reached into Hong Kong and directly pressured a local airline is undoubtedly ‘white terror’,” he wrote on his Facebook page, using a popular Hong Kong expression used to describe anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.

“There have been resignations from frontline staff to the company’s CEO because of this political trial.”

The airline confirmed Tam was no longer an employee and said it could not comment on internal staff matters. China’s aviation regulator has not responded to Reuters’ requests for comment. [Source]

Cathay is just one of many international companies that have faced varying degrees of pressure from the Chinese government or from nationalistic consumers over their terminology concerning Hong Kong’s political status or their response to the protests. Sui-Lee Wee and Raymond Zhong report for The New York Times:

The most dramatic example came on Friday, when Rupert Hogg, the chief executive of Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways, resigned in the face of Chinese pressure after some of the airline’s workers participated in the demonstrations.

Now, global accounting firms are coming under the same pressure.

The Big Four firms — PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young, now known as EY — put out statements distancing themselves from a full-page ad supporting the demonstrations that appeared in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper on Friday. The ad was signed and paid for by a group of anonymous employees of the firms.

“We will never fear or compromise with injustice and unfairness,” the text of the ad read. In response, PwC declared that the ad “does not represent the firm’s position,” adding, “We firmly oppose any action and statement that challenge national sovereignty.” [Source]

Numerous companies have issued apologies after listing Hong Kong, Taiwan, and/or Macau independently–and not as part of China–on their websites or products. These include Coach, Givenchy, Versace, tea maker Yifang, and many others (see a complete list courtesy of What’s on Weibo). State media has gone after Amazon for selling t-shirts supporting the Hong Kong protests, while some netizens in China have even accused Huawei. From Zheping Huang and Vlad Savov at Bloomberg:

People on the country’s Weibo messaging service have expressed outrage that some Huawei and Honor smartphones listed “Taipei (Taiwan)” for users who select as their language of choice traditional Chinese, which is used on the island. Customers who select simplified Chinese — used on the mainland — would see “Taipei (China).” The Weibo topic has been viewed more than 350,000 times, with some calling for a boycott of a telecommunications giant considered one of the country’s crown jewels. [Source]

Chinese celebrities have also dissociated themselves from global brands for not supporting Beijing’s line on the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some have gone to extra efforts to prove their patriotism to China in the wake of the protests, in particular after the violent treatment of Global Times journalist Fu Guohao by protesters at the Hong Kong airport. Chinese rappers, in defiance of their genre’s anti-establishment reputation, have actively posted pro-CCP messages on social media. Radii China reports:

Rap of China champion PG One, for example, re-posted People Daily’s Weibo this afternoon with the caption: “Support Hong Kong police, resist violent atrocities!!! I hope everyone is safe and secure!”

[…] Less directly, two members of what is arguably Chinese rap’s hottest overseas export, Higher Brothers, shared images of China’s national flag on their Instagram accounts this afternoon. Melo from the Sichuan trap group shared the flag with the English caption “Once again.I’m proud i’m a Chinese.”, later responding to a commenter in Chinese (and Sichuan-dialect slang), “Hong Kong has been part of China’s territory since ancient times, you dumbasses should recognize your ancestors and origins”.

Three hours later, fellow Higher Brother DZ Know shared the same image with the Chinese caption “send me a [Chinese flag emoji],” promptly followed up with a comment (also in Chinese) reading, “China first [fire emoji]”.

Though such blatant — and, frankly, puerile — displays of nationalism might seem surprising coming from rappers who’ve been busy building an international following, keep in mind that some are reflecting a sentiment that has been growing on the mainland in recent weeks as State media outlets have devoted increasing attention to events in Hong Kong. Another consideration is that signalling allegiance to a pro-Communist Party meme heavily affects the domestic bottom line for rappers like Higher Brothers and VaVa, who need to remain on the right side of Chinese authorities and fans alike. [Source]

Other celebrities who have spoken up in defense of Beijing’s position have faced mixed responses from the public. Jackie Chan was ridiculed by protesters when he told state media that he is “a national flag guard.” Protesters have called for a boycott of Disney’s remake of Mulan after its star, actress Liu Yifei, announced her support for Hong Kong police in the wake of accusations of police violence against protesters. Disney has so far not made a public statement about Liu’s comments or the backlash against them, but may soon be forced to, according to Patrick Brzeski and Tatiana Siegel of Hollywood Reporter:

“Disney can’t support the protesters because their business in China is too important,” notes Stanley Rosen, a professor at USC who specializes in the Chinese entertainment industry. “But they obviously can’t be seen as pandering too much to China either, because that could backfire as well, depending on how the situation in Hong Kong unfolds.”

The studio’s studied silence at the least risks tainting the idealism of its brand and inflaming the international #BoycottMulan campaign. But if Disney instead distances itself from its star’s statement, it will almost certainly invoke the ire of China’s Communist Party authorities, who view control over Hong Kong as one their most urgent concerns.

A source close to Liu, 31, says she is being unfairly singled out given that other Chinese celebrities have voiced support for Beijing over the Hong Kong protest movement, including the city’s own Jackie Chan and Tony Leung Ka-fai. Though protesters bristle at all stars who parrot an autocratic government’s talking points, they have an ideal wedge with Liu as the lead of the upcoming global tentpole Mulan — about a young Chinese female fighter of injustice — that Disney will release March 27.

The studio’s apparent decision to try to duck the difficult PR dilemma has put it in the awkward spot of aligning its interests with Beijing and the Hong Kong government, both of which seem to be hoping that the protesters will lose their nerve. [Source]

See more examples of celebrities and brands who have publicly supported Beijing’s stance, or been pressured to do so, via a thread by Isabella Steger:


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