Not too long ago, China “taking your job” meant its wages were far lower than Western alternatives, thus allowing it to “steal” blue-jean and iPhone factories.
But what if it meant getting you fired for what you believe? That’s apparently what happened last week to Rebecca Sy, a long-serving flight attendant at a subsidiary of the Hong Kong–based airline Cathay Pacific. Her crime: supporting the pro-democracy protests engulfing Hong Kong on her Facebook page.
Sy’s dismissal is just the most glaring example of a new stage in Beijing’s clampdown on widespread protests in the former British colony—arm-twisting Hong Kong companies to do the dirty work to ensure that their staff don’t take part in the demonstrations that have gripped the city through the summer. By threatening shareholder returns and employees’ livelihoods, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders seem to believe that they can finally quell Hong Kong’s demands for civil liberties.
The consequences for Hong Kong are potentially dire. The city has thrived as Asia’s premier financial center and a favored destination for global companies because of its strong rule of law and trustworthy administration—crucial elements for doing business that are sorely lacking in many other parts of the region, most of all China itself. But Beijing’s persistent efforts to bring the territory under its political thumb run the risk of undermining confidence in the “one country, two system” formula that governed London’s 1997 handover of the city to China and that ensures Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Without it, Hong Kong would not be Hong Kong, and the pillars supporting its economy and society would crumble.