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Hong Kong protests

I was sacked by Cathay after speaking out about Hong Kong protests

People will not be cowed by Beijing's grip on businesses

Rebecca Sy, chair of the flight attendants union at Cathay Dragon, who was dismissed by the company is on stage during a rally in Hong Kong on Aug. 28.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

In August, as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong intensified and China tried to clamp down on them, Hong Kong-based businesses found themselves under pressure from Beijing to keep their staff from protesting.

After a warning from the Civil Aviation Authority of China, airline group Cathay Pacific fired two of its pilots for their actions. Shortly afterward, chief executive Rupert Hogg resigned to "take responsibility" for "challenging weeks for the airline," he said.

Rebecca Sy, who had worked at regional subsidiary Cathay Dragon for 17 years, then found herself at the center of the storm. Below is her account of the days that followed.

Soon after the Civil Aviation Authority of China issued a warning to Cathay Pacific over "high safety risks and threats" in early August, the airline's general manager approached me -- as leader of the cabin crew union at Cathay Dragon -- and another union leader.

The CAAC had urged Cathay to fire anyone involved in the Hong Kong protests, and the general manager told us that this was a huge problem, a critical situation, that there had never been such a measure before affecting us. The message was clear: we were supposed to secure 30,000 employees' jobs by keeping silent.

Then we started to think more deeply about whether we could make a statement from our side, so we posted our views on the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation's website in the name of the federations.

Very quickly the Chinese authorities saw that statement and were obviously upset, disappointed, even mad, because our manager contacted us again and said, "My god, Rebecca, what kind of a statement have you put out? It seems you are challenging the Chinese government."

In our statement we defended our freedom of speech and our company and even talked about how "one country, two systems" -- the formula under which Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 -- should safeguard Hong Kong's status. The manager asked us to take back what we had said -- we had to remain silent to protect everyone else's jobs.

Then we got the news that our CEO [Rupert Hogg] and chief commercial officer [Paul Loo] had resigned.

It was really shocking. Who would think they would be the ones to resign? But then I never thought I would be the next one to go.

As I was walking to the gate in Hong Kong International Airport for a flight on August 20, I got a message from the cabin operator department that I had to go home and wait for the company to call. The next day, Cathay executives asked me to go into a room and showed me three printouts of my Facebook posts. My Facebook account has always been private, so I wondered how they got access to the posts.

One post was a photo of a Post-it note provided by the company on which I wrote "happy birthday" to a colleague on the aircraft; someone with different political views saw the post and told the airline that I was trying to make a Lennon wall -- where protesters stick up hundreds of Post-its with their messages -- on the aircraft.

The second was a Facebook live story, which only lasts for 24 hours, with my feelings about the resignation of our CEO and CCO. I was very upset and angry and said that those who started this trouble for me would suffer too when the company collapsed, that there is no benefit at all in attacking each other even if we have different political views. The third post was about my flight schedule.

They asked me one question, a very simple one: does this account belong to you? I said yes. And then one executive said, "I have to start the process, we have to immediately terminate your employment." That's it, very simple.

It was completely insane, I was shocked, I found this really unacceptable. I asked what were the reasons for this termination after 17 years, and his reply was ridiculous: "I can't tell you the reason."

I told them, "If you terminate me as a union leader, this is going to be a serious matter. It's very good evidence of what's going on, it's not going to be accepted by the public. People around the world will know if you've got a union leader sacked without any reason."

Demonstrators hold signs opposing the recent firings of Cathay Pacific employees on  Aug. 28.   © AP

The company seemed to be trying to warn other employees -- "if we can do it other people, we can do it to you." I'm the union leader so I chose to speak publicly, but the ground staff who got sacked don't have union support and were afraid to come out because it would hurt their chances of finding another job. I don't have another choice because if I don't speak out then the company would just think there's nothing wrong.

Unlike the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014, the people's determination and support this time is a lot bigger because of how the government is handling them and because what the police have done is outrageous -- they are the ones who have used violence, not the protesters. We are not stupid. We know what we are doing and what the government is doing.

We're all upset and angry because you could fix the political issue, but they keep escalating it. They're not taking any responsibility at all. They've done nothing until now.

We feel sorry for the younger generation who have to go to the front when they should be enjoying their summer holiday. Worse, they will have to sacrifice their future if they are caught, imprisoned, injured badly, even lose an eye.

The protests will definitely continue if there's no reply from the government, no action by them, not even a proposal from them. You can see how arrogant they are. People will keep this emotion and this anger and they will be more and more united because they have seen how much people have sacrificed already. They believe they should not have been sacrificed for nothing.

Everyone will support the protesters. We are united so our power is enough to keep fighting.

Rebecca Sy was a member of cabin crew for Cathay Dragon and chairperson of the Cabin Crew Union. As told to Josh Spero, comment editor of the Nikkei Asian Review.

Cathay Pacific Group said: "Rebecca Sy's departure has nothing to do with her union leadership role or her union activities. While we cannot comment on individual cases, when deciding whether to terminate an employee, we take into account all relevant circumstances including applicable regulatory requirements and the employee's ability to perform his/her job."

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