HONG KONG (AP) — The chief executive of Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways warned Monday there will be "disciplinary consequences" for employees involved in "illegal protests," as the airline joins a slate of businesses that have appeased and apologized to China in recent days.
His comments in a memo to employees seen by the AP came just hours before the Hong Kong airport announced it was shutting down and canceling the day's remaining flights after thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators occupied the main terminal.
As more than two months of mass protests have taken over the semi-autonomous Chinese city, companies from luxury fashion brands to bubble tea shops have been under pressure to distance themselves from protesters and declare their support for the ruling Communist Party's position on Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 under the framework of "one country, two systems." In recent years, however, some Hong Kong residents have accused Beijing of chipping away at the democratic freedoms promised them under the agreement.
The central government in Beijing and authorities in Hong Kong have characterized the demonstrations as illegal, unauthorized assemblies because many were not granted police approval. They have also repeatedly condemned a group of "radical" protesters who have resorted to violence to have their demands heard. Some protesters have thrown bricks, eggs and flaming objects at police stations.
Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg said in the memo to employees that the company has a "zero tolerance approach to illegal activities."
"There will be disciplinary consequences for employees who support or participate in illegal protests," Hogg wrote. "These consequences could be serious and may include termination of employment."
Last Friday, China's civil aviation authority announced that Cathay Pacific employees who "support or take part in illegal protests, violent actions, or overly radical behavior" are banned from staffing flights to mainland China. The authority also notified Cathay Pacific that it must submit for approval the identification details of crew members flying to the mainland or flying over mainland airspace.
A Cathay Pacific pilot was charged with rioting, the airline said in an emailed response Monday. The pilot has not performed any flying duties since mid-July and was removed from such duties on July 30, it said. Two airport ground staffers have also been fired recently for misconduct, the company said, without elaborating on the grounds for their dismissal.
Hogg said in a previous memo Saturday that Cathay Pacific must comply with the civil aviation authority's regulations.
"Though people may share different views, it is essential that we all respect each other, our customers and members of the public," he wrote. "We are aware that this has been, and continues to be, a very challenging time for many of us who live in Hong Kong and call this incredible city home."
The airline is not the only company that has become entangled in Hong Kong's political tumult.
Luxury fashion brands Givenchy, Versace and Coach have apologized after Chinese social media users lambasted the companies for selling T-shirts which listed Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as their own countries. Officially Hong Kong and Macao are classified as "special administrative regions" with a greater degree of autonomy than mainland Chinese provinces. Taiwan, meanwhile, split from the mainland during a civil war in 1949, though the Communist Party claims the island as part of its territory and maintains that "reunification" is inevitable.
Coach said in a statement Monday that "major mistakes" were discovered in the design of some of its T-shirts.
"We are deeply sorry for the damage caused to our consumers' feelings," Coach said.
Likewise, Versace said Sunday that their "incorrect design" linked some cities with incorrect country names. It said the T-shirts with this design were removed from all official sales channels and "destroyed" on July 24. "We love China and resolutely respect the national sovereignty of Chinese territory," the brand said.
CoCo Fresh Tea and Juice, a Taiwanese bubble tea franchise, and Pop Mart, a Chinese lifestyle brand, both apologized after individuals affiliated with their companies expressed support for Hong Kong protesters.
While it is rare for several apologies to come in such quick succession, it's far from the first time international companies have been pressured to bend to the Communist Party's official stance on Hong Kong and Taiwan. Last May, British Airways, Lufthansa and Air Canada were among 20 carriers that edited their global websites to explicitly refer to Taiwan as part of China following an order from the Civil Aviation Administration. In response, the White House called the demand "Orwellian nonsense."
Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.