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In Hong Kong, Employees Hide Their Political Leanings as Beijing Forces Companies to Take Sides

7 minute read

By day, Lucy is a flight attendant. Dressed in a neat uniform, she politely offers passengers meals and drinks while they cruise at 35,000 feet. Recently though, she’s been switching shifts to make sure that she’s in town to join the protests that have rocked Hong Kong for the last 15 weeks. For those, she trades in her meticulous Cathay Pacific attire for a black t-shirt, accessorized with a yellow hardhat and a facemask: the uniform of Hong Kong’s young protesters.

Lucy, 30, who asked to be identified by only her first name, says her friends describe her as “deep yellow,” local slang which means she is a staunch supporter of the democracy movement. She camped out on the streets during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and she’s taken to the streets again this year.

Demonstrations have roiled Hong Kong every weekend since June. They began as a few peaceful marches against a now suspended extradition bill that critics say would have allowed Beijing to use politically-motivated charges to ship dissenters off to face trial in the Communist Party controlled court system. But they have since escalated into intense pro-democracy protests that often end in violent clashes with police.

In the last few months, Lucy says she has been teargassed several times and hit on the head by a projectile fired by police. “It’s hard to go from a flight attendant to a gas-masked protester,” she tells TIME.

Her employer has been sucked into the fight between the city’s youthful protesters and Beijing. In August, China’s aviation authority banned any Cathay Pacific staff who had taken part in “illegal protests” from flying mainland routes, and threatened not to allow any flights without an approved crew list into Chinese airspace.

For Cathay Pacific, which counts 26 of its 111 destinations on the mainland, and earns half of its income from tickets purchased in Hong Kong and China, losing access to Chinese airspace would be a blow from which it might never recover.

“Any company that gets most of its revenue from the mainland is in a pickle,” Alexander Zwagerman, Senior Lecturer at Arnhem Business School, tells TIME. Beijing clearly demands that [companies] disavow any semblance of an allegiance to the Hong Kong people and even punishes workers with links to the protesters.”

In the wake of what Zwagerman calls “Beijing’s most heavy-handed use of its economic clout to date,” Cathay Pacific quickly capitulated. Several employees were fired for protest-related reasons, and a few senior staff members, including the CEO and the chairman, have since stepped down.

Cathay has now warned employees that it will take a zero-tolerance approach to “any support for or participation in illegal protests, violent activities or overly radical behavior.” But employees like Lucy say they have no plans to stop. “The company has no right to control our minds or our speech when we’re not working,” she tells TIME.

Lucy has nevertheless taken steps to make sure she’s not found out, like setting her Instagram profile to private. When she worked a flight to Beijing last month, she left her phone at home for fear of having it searched by mainland officials.

Foreign and Hong Kong companies wanting access to China’s vast consumer market have long had to comply with Beijing, but the protests have seen a dramatic intensification of China’s expectations.

“We’ve rarely seen Hong Kong firms so publicly brought to heel as we have over the past few months,” Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair of China Studies at the Washington D.C.-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells TIME.

Several other large companies have been dragged into the fray. After staff of the so-called Big 4 accounting firms crowdfunded a pro-protest advertisement in a local newspaper, the Chinese state-run Global Times urged management at the firms to fire “pro-riot staff” who “have the wrong stance on the current Hong Kong situation.”

One of the companies, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) quickly issued a statement saying it firmly opposed “any action and statement” that challenged “national sovereignty.”

In September, fast fashion giant Zara was forced to issue a statement declaring support for China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, after Chinese netizens went into a frenzy on the microblogging site Weibo because the retailer shut down its Hong Kong stores on the day of a strike in the city.

Other local businesses that have shown allegiance toward either side have drawn the ire of customers.

An extensive Google Doc circulating around the Reddit-like forum LIHKG, for example, details restaurants that should be avoided by pro-democracy diners. Justifications for blacklisting establishments on the crowd-sourced list are as tenuous as someone overhearing a waiter saying protesters are paid by foreign governments.

Hong Kong Protests Restaurants
Riot police stand in front of a restaurant while patrolling after an anti-government rally in Hong Kong on August 18, 2019.Isaac Lawrence—AFP/Getty Images

Big brands, like the sports drink Pocari Sweat, have pulled advertisements from a local television station viewed as pro-Beijing to avoid losing customers.

Some protesters have called for boycotts the city’s subway system, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), because it closes stations near protest locations but has been found to be transporting riot police.

One MTR employee in his early 30’s tells TIME that although he is an unwavering supporter of the protesters, his job with the majority-government-owned operator puts him in a tight spot. He fears that he’ll be fired if he takes part in protests. So instead he spends weekends at his computer screen, glued to live stream videos of the events unfolding on the streets below him, cheering the protesters on.

Read More: Hong Kong Businesses Are Reeling Amid the Protests, But Their Workers Say ‘Freedom’ Is More Important

The politicization of Hong Kong’s companies has hurt the business hub’s reputation. “Hong Kong’s position as a global hub for finance and business has suffered an irrevocable wound,” Blanchette says.

In what is perhaps the clearest signal yet that trust in the city’s safeguards has been undermined, Fitch Ratings announced the downgrade of Hong Kong’s credit rating and outlook on Sept. 6, citing China’s growing influence in the territory’s affairs. The “perimeters and pliability of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework” has been tested in recent months, with mainland officials “taking a more public stance on Hong Kong affairs than at any time since the 1997 handover,” Fitch said in its press release.

Despite orders from Beijing for companies to tell their employees to fall into line, some of their workers say they will keep fighting.

Antonia (a pseudonym), 31, a PwC employee, says she’s furious about the tactics police have used against young protesters. She tells TIME that she won’t stop attending rallies until the government agrees to an independent inquiry into the police—even if she has to pretend to be going on vacation in order to do so, like she did for several days in June.

And Lucy the flight attendant says she’ll keep switching shifts to make sure she can be on the front lines with her fellow Hongkongers.

“I still think I’m doing the right thing and I should keep doing it,” she says.

But for Hong Kong companies that depend on access to the Chinese market for their bottom line, things aren’t quite so simple. In the Hong Kong business world, Zwagerman says: “Beijing has made it clear who’s boss.”

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Write to AMY GUNIA / HONG KONG at amy.gunia@time.com