Hong Kong (CNN)During the week, Ricky pilots passenger jets traveling around the world for one of Hong Kong’s flagship airlines, Cathay Pacific. But when the weekend arrives, he sheds his pilot cap and blazer in exchange for a face mask and helmet, and goes out to join the anti-government protests which have dominated the semi-autonomous Chinese city over the past four months.
Ricky spoke to CNN using a pseudonym on condition of anonymity. He says his double life as a pilot and a protester is exhausting, but he says it’s worth the risk to be part of what he sees as a battle to save his city.“I (had) been acting as a so-called ‘aggressive’ protester,” Ricky says. “My role was to extinguish all the tear gas, in order to protect other citizens and protesters as well.”But recently, Ricky says he has changed his role from a frontline protester to a first aid volunteer. The threat of losing his job loomed large following Cathay’s decision to implement stringent new rules outlawing staff from attending any protests deemed “illegal” by authorities.”Fear is spreading,” Ricky says. “You can tell the company is being torn apart and starting to break down.”Cathay Pacific's crisis just got even uglierRead MoreStaff morale is at an all-time low, he says. Everybody is paranoid. “Basically, I think there’s no trust between crews and office staff as well right now, everybody (is) scared,” he says.Cathay Pacific — an iconic Hong Kong brand — has come under scrutiny from China after months of protests in the city, which were sparked by a proposed extradition bill with China but have morphed into a broader anti-government movement. Three of the biggest marches brought more than a million people onto the streets, according to organizers. Dozens of smaller protests have been held throughout the summer, many of them turning violent, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and protesters throwing bricks and petrol bombs.In mid-August, Cathay announced they would be adhering to a new directive issued by China’s Civil Aviation Administration which banned employees from working on flights in China if they supported “illegal protests.” In the same week, several days of protests at Hong Kong’s International Airport ended in chaos, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of Cathay flights. Cathay’s CEO, Rupert Hogg, and Paul Loo, the chief commercial officer stepped down a few days later.On August 28, Cathay Pacific issued a revised version of its employee Code of Conduct, seen by CNN, which includes sections on social media posts, and encourages employees to “speak up” if they see breaches of the code as part of a “whistleblowing” policy.Since then, Cathay staff tell CNN that dozens of people have been fired from the company.In response to a request from CNN, Cathay Pacific said that every staff dismissal is made in accordance with relevant employment contracts. Their statement added that the company is required to follow the regulations “prescribed by the authorities in mainland China…there is no ground for compromise.”Protesters take part in a rally to support Cathay Pacific staff in Hong Kong after some of the airline’s staff were sacked for supporting opposition to a controversal extradition bill.Whistleblowing cultureNow, the mood at the company is “very somber,” according to another Cathay pilot, Jack, who also spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity.”The majority are extremely supportive of the movement, but not all,” Jack says.Those who aren’t, he adds, are now denouncing their colleagues.”Some cabin crew support the government, and have given fellow workers’ names to the company who have talked about supporting the protests and thence been terminated,” Jack says. “The company has actively asked for whistleblowers to come forward, creating a divide amongst fellow employees.”The result, he says, is an increasing culture of fear.”Everyone has deleted chat groups and social media (profiles) that have any mention of the protests,” Jack says. “The cabin crew don’t even want to talk about the protests in the open, let alone admit they attend protests.”The week that Cathay Pacific surrendered to ChinaOver the past few months, Cathay flights landing in China have also become subject to extra inspections by airport officials, Jack says.”Checking every safety compliance of our aircraft in China is now very common,” he says. “They are intense and stressful for crew.”Crew members are also going through extra scrutiny when they arrive in mainland China, he adds.”Security checks have increased in intensity, personal phones have been inspected,” Jack says. “Crew now leave their phone at home or take a second ‘China’ phone to work.”Many workers at Cathay have a name for this increasing unease: ‘white terror.’ They say it is seeping into every aspect of the business.”In terms of the white terror, I would say it feels unsafe, it’s uncertain,” Cathay staff member Paul tells CNN, on condition of anonymity. “We wouldn’t know if it’s our last day today, because tomorrow when we come in, we may not even be able to get into the building anymore.”The phrase ‘white terror’ dates back to the French Revolution, and is often used to describe the mass persecution of dissidents in political crackdowns, including Taiwan’s decades of martial law until 1987.Paul believes that Cathay’s drive to encourage whistleblowing has hallmarks of Chinese-style communism.”(It) is almost like China’s cultural revolution, you encourage people to sell out their peers,” he says. “People can take your words or take your things out of context and they can still report you.” Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters protect themselves after a group occupied a main road near the central government offices in Hong Kong on Saturday, September 28.Hide Caption 1 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man is detained by Hong Kong police during a protest in the Causeway Bay shopping district on Sunday, September 29.Hide Caption 2 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA pro-democracy protester throws a tear gas canister back at police on September 29.Hide Caption 3 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPassengers look out from a bus at a burning barricade lit by pro-democracy protesters during a gathering in front of Mong Kok police station on Sunday, September 22, in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued demonstrations across Hong Kong, calling for the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to immediately meet the rest of their demands, including an independent inquiry into police brutality, the retraction of the word riot to describe the rallies, and genuine universal suffrage, as the territory faces a leadership crisis.Hide Caption 4 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy protesters sing songs and chant slogans during a rally inside a shopping mall in Shatin on September 22.Hide Caption 5 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn umbrella is abandoned near barricades during a protest in Hong Kong on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. Demonstrators have marched through an outlying district of Hong Kong in another weekend of protest aimed at the Chinese territory’s government.Hide Caption 6 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn anti-government protester throws a Molotov cocktail during a demonstration near Central Government Complex in Hong Kong on Sunday, September 15.Hide Caption 7 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA pro-China supporter, center, is escorted by police after confronting journalists in Hong Kong, on September 15.Hide Caption 8 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-government and anti-government supporters chant against one another at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Friday, September 13. The sign translates to “Stop violence and curb chaos; safeguard Hong Kong.”Hide Caption 9 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestDemonstrators hold up their cell phone lights as they form a human chain at the Peak, a tourist spot in Hong Kong, on September 13.Hide Caption 10 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice escort an injured man after he attacked protesters outside Prince Edward station in Hong Kong on Friday, September 6.Hide Caption 11 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters burn paper money to pay their respects to injured protesters.Hide Caption 12 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters prepare to clash with police outside the Mong Kok police station on September 6.Hide Caption 13 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester is detained by police at the Po Lam Mass Transit Railway station on Thursday, September 5.Hide Caption 14 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man watches televisions at a store in Hong Kong as Chief Executive Carrie Lam announces the withdrawal of the extradition bill on Wednesday, September 4.Hide Caption 15 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA woman gets emotional on September 4 while paying her respects to protesters who were injured a few days earlier.Hide Caption 16 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice aim at protesters outside the Mong Kok police station on September 4.Hide Caption 17 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestDemonstrators travel through a railway station during a rally on Tuesday, September 3.Hide Caption 18 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestStudents wearing gas masks and helmets hold a banner that reads “five major demands are indispensable” at St. Francis’ Canossian College in Hong Kong.Hide Caption 19 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters gather in the bus terminal at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday, September 1. Hundreds of pro-democracy activists attempted to block transport routes to the city’s airport.Hide Caption 20 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA passenger walks to the airport on September 1 as pro-democracy protesters blocked a road outside the airport.Hide Caption 21 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester uses a slingshot outside the Central Government Complex during clashes with police on Saturday, August 31. Thousands of pro-democracy protesters held an anti-government rally one day after several leading activists and lawmakers were arrested in a sweeping crackdown.Hide Caption 22 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters stand in front of a burning barricade as clashes with the police intensified on August 31.Hide Caption 23 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters light a Molotov cocktail on August 31.Hide Caption 24 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice officers move forward during clashes with protesters on August 31.Hide Caption 25 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters take cover as policemen fire blue-colored water on them. Blue dye can be used to stain and identify masked protesters.Hide Caption 26 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA surveillance camera is covered with white paint during protests.Hide Caption 27 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn overhead view shows protesters reacting after police fired tear gas on August 31.Hide Caption 28 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy activists Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong speak to the media after they were released on bail at the Eastern Magistrates Courts on Friday, August 30. They were arrested earlier the same day in a dragnet across Hong Kong.Hide Caption 29 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters clash with police after a rally in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan district on Sunday, August 25. It was one of the most violent nights seen in Hong Kong since mass protests began in June.Hide Caption 30 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA police officer aims a gun in front of a protester on August 25.Hide Caption 31 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestSome protesters shine laser pointers at police lines on August 25.Hide Caption 32 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters and police clash on Saturday, August 24.Hide Caption 33 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters pick up bricks to be used as projectiles on August 24.Hide Caption 34 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice retreat after clashing with protesters on August 24.Hide Caption 35 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPeople link hands as they gather at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront on Friday, August 23. Protesters formed a human chain across Hong Kong in a show of solidarity.Hide Caption 36 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestCell phones shine from the top of Lion Rock on August 23.Hide Caption 37 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters march under umbrellas on Sunday, August 18.Hide Caption 38 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestTens of thousands of protesters showed up in the streets on August 18.Hide Caption 39 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester participates in a march on Saturday, August 17. His eye is covered with red gauze, referencing a woman who was allegedly shot in the eye with a beanbag round during clashes between protesters and police.Hide Caption 40 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester ties a white ribbon, symbolizing the pure intentions of young protesters, during a march organized by teachers in Hong Kong on August 17.Hide Caption 41 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters react after police fired tear gas to disperse a demonstration at the Sham Shui Po police station in Hong Kong on Wednesday, August 14.Hide Caption 42 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters point lasers at the Sham Shui Po police station on August 14.Hide Caption 43 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA police officer falls over an airport luggage trolley during a scuffle with pro-democracy protesters on Tuesday, August 13. For two days, protesters flooded the airport. Check-ins were suspended and dozens of outgoing flights were canceled.Hide Caption 44 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice use pepper spray to disperse protesters at the airport on August 13.Hide Caption 45 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice and protesters clash at the airport on August 13. The violence came after Hong Kong’s Airport Authority announced that all check-in services would be suspended for another night because of terminal operations being “seriously disrupted.”Hide Caption 46 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA traveler passes her luggage to security guards as she tries to enter the departures gate.Hide Caption 47 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA display board shows canceled flights on August 13.Hide Caption 48 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAnti-government protesters stand at a barricade made of luggage trolleys during a demonstration at the airport on August 13.Hide Caption 49 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMedics look after a woman who received a facial injury during clashes on Sunday, August 11.Hide Caption 50 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA pro-democracy protester is held by police outside the Tsim Sha Tsui police station on August 11.Hide Caption 51 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice fire tear gas at protesters during a demonstration in the Wong Tai Sin District on Monday, August 5.Hide Caption 52 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA train passenger gestures toward a protester, right, who was preventing the doors of a train from closing on August 5. The protester was trying to disrupt Hong Kong’s morning rush-hour commute.Hide Caption 53 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man lies down on an underground train during a protest on August 5.Hide Caption 54 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA man comforts his pregnant wife near a train platform after protesters blocked the train doors on August 5.Hide Caption 55 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester stands in tear gas during a confrontation with police in the early hours of Sunday, August 4.Hide Caption 56 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA Chinese flag floats in water after it was thrown by protesters during a demonstration on Saturday, August 3.Hide Caption 57 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester sprays paint on a wall on August 3.Hide Caption 58 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMembers of Hong Kong’s medical sector attend a protest in Edinburgh Place on Friday, August 2.Hide Caption 59 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestThe emblem on the China Liaison Office is protected by plexiglass during a demonstration on Sunday, July 28.Hide Caption 60 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester flees from baton-wielding police in the Yuen Long district of Hong Kong on Saturday, July 27.Hide Caption 61 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester looks through umbrellas during the clashes with police on July 27.Hide Caption 62 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestTravelers watch as protesters rally at Hong Kong’s international airport on Friday, July 26.Hide Caption 63 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters clash with police on Sunday, July 21.Hide Caption 64 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMasked men in white T-shirts are seen after attacking anti-extradition bill demonstrators at a train station in Yuen Long.Hide Caption 65 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestMedical workers help a protester affected by tear gas on July 21.Hide Caption 66 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestThe office of pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was trashed by protesters in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan district.Hide Caption 67 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice officers use pepper spray to disperse protesters after a rally in the Sheung Shui district on Saturday, July 13. Hide Caption 68 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA demonstrator sprays paint inside a chamber at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, where protesters forced their way in on Monday, July 1.Hide Caption 69 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestThe meeting hall of the Legislative Council is taken over by demonstrators on July 1.Hide Caption 70 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester smashes a window of the Legislative Council building.Hide Caption 71 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestColumns of sunlight are cast on a crowd during the march on July 1.Hide Caption 72 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestHelicopters carrying the flags of China and Hong Kong fly over demonstrators on July 1.Hide Caption 73 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPro-democracy lawmaker Roy Kwong rallies demonstrators with a megaphone on July 1.Hide Caption 74 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA police officer uses pepper spray during a clash with protesters on July 1.Hide Caption 75 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA protester wearing a T-shirt with the word “revolution” walks past an inscription on a road that reads “Long Live HK.”Hide Caption 76 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice detain protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on July 1.Hide Caption 77 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestAn overhead view shows thousands of protesters marching through a Hong Kong street on Sunday, June 16.Hide Caption 78 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters run after police fired tear gas on Wednesday, June 12.Hide Caption 79 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters face off with police during the rally on June 12.Hide Caption 80 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestBy the morning of June 12, tens of thousands of mainly young people had arrived in the area, blocking streets and bringing central Hong Kong to a standstill.Hide Caption 81 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestA demonstrator holds a sign during the June 12 rally.Hide Caption 82 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestPolice officers charge toward protesters during clashes on Monday, June 10. It was a continuation of protests that started the day before.Hide Caption 83 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters hold pictures of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Sunday, June 9.Hide Caption 84 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestProtesters on June 9 waved placards and wore white — the designated color of the rally. “Hong Kong, never give up!” some chanted.Hide Caption 85 of 86 Photos: Hong Kong unrestStudents wear chains during a demonstration on Saturday, June 8.Hide Caption 86 of 86The turnaround within Cathay Pacific is particularly disturbing for people in Hong Kong, given the 73-year-old company has a reputation for excellence — it was named Skytrax airline of the year four times — and is a major employer in Hong Kong, with nearly 20,000 locally-based staff. On a day-to-day level, it has created a working culture that is increasingly hard to bear, says Sam, a Cathay crew member who wished to remain anonymous.”I would say that in Cathay right now, everybody is kind of in stealth mode,” Sam says. “So whatever you do, whatever you say, you look around before you talk on the phone, you look around before you check your phone, and you would think about what you are going to say before you would say it.”Younger members of staff are particularly affected by this internal cultural shift, she says.”The more junior crews will watch their mouth or just smile and nod because they are so scared to be reported,” Sam says.Cultural shiftLong time staff say no one is exempt from the shifting mood. A senior air steward and union organizer for Cathay Dragon, Rebecca Sy, was one of the first staff members to be dismissed under the new regime. “At the beginning, I was shocked,” Sy says. “Very disappointed, frustrated.”Sy had worked at Cathay Dragon, a low cost subsidiary airline, for 17 years, and says she had a good relationship with the company. She tells CNN she was called into a meeting, asked to identify three screenshots from her Facebook account, and was then fired on the spot.A senior air steward and union organizer for Cathay Dragon, Rebecca Sy, was one of the first staff members to be dismissed.She says she has attended some of the authorized protests in Hong Kong, but says her Facebook account did not break the company’s code of conduct. In response to CNN, Cathay says they don’t comment on individual cases of dismissal.”It is my first job since my graduation from university,” Sy says. “I really loved my job…to me it’s very special.”But the mood at the company is changing rapidly, she says, as the staff are “so afraid and scared.””They are all losing faith, losing hope with this company,” Sy says. “(They) can’t enjoy the freedom of speech.”It’s a pattern that is being repeated at other workplaces in Hong Kong, she says.”It’s not just Cathay (which is) being targeted,” Sy says, adding that it is happening in other businesses as well as hospitals and schools in the city.Cathay is majority-owned by Swire Pacific. The Anglo-Hong Kong conglomerate, which was founded in 1816, maintains a diversified business portfolio — including a large property portfolio across mainland China. The company’s capitulation to Beijing’s demands sends a strong message about the power of China’s financial hold over Hong Kong.Analysts say that the Chinese government is increasing its efforts to control companies and pressure them to conform to the party line.General Secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, Lee Cheuk-yan, says that so-called ‘white terror’ is spreading into other industries. Lee Cheuk-yan, General Secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, says he has also seen evidence of so-called ‘white terror’ in other sectors, including the banking industry.”This is now widespread in Hong Kong, and something we are very much worried about because our political belief is being compromised,” he says. “So if you want a job, if you want to have a secure living, you have to be pro-China….that would be disastrous for Hong Kong.”For many of the staff still working at Cathay, the dramatic change in dynamic has come as a surprise, especially for those who once respected the company’s culture and ethos.”I can say that Cathay Pacific (had) an open-minded culture,” Paul says. “I can no longer say the same.”But he says the fear spreading through the company will not change what the staff believe in.”Freedom of expression, and opinions, and freedom of speech, that’s how my family raised me up to be,” Paul says. “I am a person, in addition to an employee, so I just think that you might be able to silence us inside a company, but then you cannot just change our mind.”