The chief executive of Cathay Pacific has resigned after Beijing began pressuring the Hong Kong carrier over participation by some of its employees in anti-government protests.
Former CEO Rupert Hogg stands to be the highest-profile corporate casualty of official Chinese pressure on foreign and Hong Kong companies to support the ruling Communist Party’s position against the protesters.
Beijing jolted companies last week when it warned Cathay Pacific employees who “support or take part in illegal protests” would be barred from flying to or over the mainland.
This week, Cathay also terminated two pilots, after being ordered by China’s aviation regulator to suspend personnel who had engaged in the protests.
Hong Kong is now in its third month of protests.
The demonstrations started in opposition to a proposed extradition law, but have since expanded to include demands for a more democratic system.
Following Mr Hogg’s shock resignation, the airline released a statement saying Cathay Pacific needs new management to “reset confidence” because its commitment to safety and security were “called into question,” according to company chairman, John Slosar.
Mr Hogg resigned to “to take responsibility as a leader of the company in view of recent events,” the statement said.
After three years as the company’s British executive, Mr Hogg will be replaced by Augustus Tang, the chief executive of Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering.
Cathay Pacific serves more than 200 destinations in Asia, Europe and the Americas. The international carrier has 33,000 employees but more than a fifth of its flights still go to the Chinese mainland.
Its parent, Cathay Pacific Group, also owns Dragonair, Air Hong Kong and HK Express.
Mr Slosar said last week that Cathay Pacific didn’t tell its employees what to think, but that position shifted following China’s warning.
On Monday, Mr Hogg threatened employees with penalties including possible firing if they took part in “illegal protests.”
After thousands of people gathered in protest in the main terminal of Cathay’s home hub, Hong Kong international airport, the airline was eventually forced to cancel more than 200 flights.
Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy” — a system dubbed “one country, two systems” by Beijing — when the former British colony returned to China in 1997.
Government critics say that is being eroded by Hong Kong leaders and the Communist Party.
“Cathay Pacific is fully committed to Hong Kong under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ as enshrined in the Basic Law. We are confident that Hong Kong will have a great future,” Mr Slosar said in the statement.
Other companies also have been caught up in nationalist passions. Fashion brands Givenchy, Versace and Coach apologised after Chinese social media users criticised them for selling T-shirts that showed Hong Kong, as well as the Chinese territory of Macau and self-ruled Taiwan, as separate countries. Taiwan split with the mainland in a civil war in 1949 but Beijing claims the island as its territory and is pressuring companies to say it is part of China. Last year, 20 airlines including British Airways, Lufthansa and Air Canada changed their websites to call Taiwan part of China under orders from the Chinese regulator.
The White House called the demand “Orwellian nonsense.”
Originally published as China forces airline boss to resign