There is only really one way to categorize what happened this summer concerning Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) and Cathay Pacific. It was Beijing bullying.

As anti-government protestors moved their main rallying site from the city to HKG, the scenes of increasing chaos were, indeed, distressing. While most of the protestors maintained peaceful demonstrations, they were wrong to block passengers from accessing the departure lounge.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government, through its CAAC civil aviation agency, was also wrong when it threatened Cathay Pacific with new rules that forced it to provide information on any crews who operate flights into the mainland or through Chinese airspace. Any Cathay employee found to have taken part in the anti-government protests was banned from operating those flights.

Meanwhile, several major Chinese companies struck Cathay off their airline travel lists. And Cathay’s CEO and chief customer and commercial officer—two highly experienced and respected industry executives—were forced to resign.

Disturbingly, statements were issued in Hong Kong and Beijing about “resetting confidence” in Cathay, when no such resetting was necessary. Cathay is a historic airline with excellent records in safety, security and customer service. Cathay management made clear it does not tolerate any unprofessional or violent behavior. HKG is a superb hub and an important gateway for tourists, business travelers and cargo to and from Hong Kong and the broader Asia-Pacific market, including mainland China.

Beijing knows full well that when it pressures Hong Kong’s airport and flagship airline, any harm it inflicts will be to the benefit of its government-owned major
carriers—Air China, China Eastern and China Southern. 

By targeting a Hong Kong airline that competes with Chinese mainland carriers, CAAC is tilting the competitive playing field. 

Those with airline travel options—including corporations—can choose non-Chinese carriers if they do not like what has happened in Hong Kong. They can question the ties that their home country airlines have with Chinese government-owned airlines through global alliances, equity stakes or joint ventures. The global commercial air transport industry is, like other service industries, market-based and consumer driven.

Beijing has developed and pursued a national aviation vision that is both remarkable in its scope and enviable in its execution. It has meticulously created a massive air transport system that is safe and which features some of the newest airport hubs and most modern airliners anywhere in the industry. It does not need to resort to bullying or to playing with the air transport competitive landscape under the guise of restoring security. If any “confidence reset” is needed, it’s in demonstrating that Beijing will not unduly interfere in the business of a major airline that had nothing to do with the root cause or direction of the demonstrations. 

Beijing can do better.