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Opinion | 'Turbulence in the sky'

By Philip Yeung, university teacher


By now, every man and his dog knows about the rumble in the sky. Cathay Pacific flight attendants found themselves in the eye of a category-5 storm, caught disrespecting non-English speaking Mainland passengers.

Cathay is quick to smell existential threat as 70% of its revenue reportedly comes from the mainland. Consumer boycotts are still raging against Nike and Adidas over Xinjiang cotton, having humbled H & M. To its credit, its CEO acted swiftly, issuing 3 apologies in 3 days, ending with the announced firing of the 3 offending stewardesses. Discrimination is no laughing matter and the offenders didn't get the last laugh.

Mainlanders won't be pacified by Cathay Pacific's actions, claiming that this incident is just the tip of the iceberg. They accuse its cabin crew of habitually disparaging non-English-speaking mainland passengers while according foreigners deferential treatment.

Cathay's CEO has promised a full investigation which he will personally lead. But as the situation continues to ferment, only a root-and-branch change in company culture will do.

One thing Cathay must avoid is to repeat BMW's blunder in handling its Ice Cream-gate, in which ice creams were handed out free to foreigners but denied to Chinese. BMW tried to repair the damage with a PR gimmick by giving out free dog-tags to the Chinese. But this backfired with its echoes of the infamous sign outside a Shanghai park: "Chinese and dogs are not allowed."

Cosmetic changes won't stop the tidal wave of anger. Cathay needs a systemic revamp. While the company recruits local staff from regions it serves outside Mainland China, it has refused to hire local cabin crew to service its mainland routes. This nurtures a noxious subculture which has come back to bite its mainland patrons. Cathay has an unshirkable responsibility to create job opportunities where it makes most of its money. An investigation is a Band-Aid solution. Why not a recruitment campaign that generates good will?

Hong Kongers' tangled ties with mainlanders fall into three categories: On Canton Road, the heartland of ultra-luxury shopping, sales people would give their right arm to red-carpet mainland customers. Locals are cold-shouldered as improbable patrons. Likewise, in real estate agencies, mainlanders are royalty, preceded by a reputation for scooping up expensive properties sight unseen.

In public schools and private universities, devastated by declining birthrate and plunging student enrolment, Mainland students are greeted like saviors that prevent school closure.

But in Yuen Long, outside overcrowded drug stores, they are as welcome as "swarms of locusts".

On buses and the MTR or busy restaurants, too, they are likewise viewed as big mouths with bulging wallets.

In short, where locals stand depends on where they sit. Cathay cabin crew is guilty of biting the hand that feeds them. I have never heard of a company prospering by insulting its customers. There is a symbiotic relationship between Hong Kong and its next-door neighbor, separated by a yawning language and culture gap that cries out to be bridged.

Hong Kong's landscape is littered with pockets of colonial-era snobbery.

In truth, the city has never been decolonized. The handover happened with a piece of paper and a ceremony, with no corresponding action in education. This is why thousands of civil servants have chosen to quit rather than swear an oath of allegiance to the new sovereign. Maybe Cathay itself, with its ingrained snooty British culture, needs full decolonization and localization.

China is a misunderstood country. No nation in history has undergone such rapid and utter transformation. Attitude towards China can't keep pace with the velocity of change. What was true in the 80's or 90's is no longer true today. But old attitudes die hard, whatever the new jaw-dropping progress.

Mainlanders dislike being belittled. They begin to call flight attendants "glorified waitresses", who are too far down the food chain to be snobs.

These days, consumers wield a powerful weapon. Their smartphone is a camera, a recording device, a communication tool, and a potential "smoking gun". Being caught red-handed in anti-social behavior could spell the end of a career. There is no place to hide, whether one is 30,000 ft. in the air or 3-feet apart face-to-face on the ground, or even in the boardroom.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.


Read more articles by Philip Yeung:

Opinion | America is sick, and needs therapy

Opinion | Liz Truss, God's shortest mistake


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