The heads of some of Asia’s biggest airlines were supposed to be heading into the heart of the pro-democracy, anti-government riots in Hong Kong courtesy of Cathay Pacific, which was set to host this year’s Assembly of Presidents of the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines (AAPA), but the association announced on 13 November it was cancelling the event.
While not saying so explicitly in its cancellation notice, the increased violence Hong Kong has been experiencing over the past several days was obviously the main factor, given the event was scheduled for 21-22 November, just before local elections, and was also scheduled to be held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kowloon, an area of the city that has seen some of the worst of the past six months of conflict pitting Hong Kong’s once-respected police force against tens of thousands of protesters that have been filling the streets, facing barrages of tear gas and rubber bullets. At least three people have been shot by police with live rounds, a pro-Beijing advocate was set on fire and remains in hospital and an Indonesian journalist lost the use of one eye after being hit by police firing rubber bullets.
The association sent out a notice on Wednesday (13 November) saying the cancellation “was a very difficult decision, given our commitment to organise this important industry event, but reflects the unpredictability of the situation in Hong Kong. At the same time, the well-being of our delegates and guests has always been of paramount importance”.
The AAPA had been hoping to keep the event going, despite the violence and daily interruptions that make it difficult to navigate the city and as of 12 November, AAPA staff were still making arrangements for the event to move ahead. Andrew Herdman, director general of AAPA, did not respond to earlier emailed questions for comment.
The Assembly of Presidents is the annual meeting of top leaders of Asian airlines represented by the AAPA. Cathay Pacific, which has been drawn into the political fight engulfing Hong Kong, was this year’s host. Cathay has seen its CEO, chairman, and other top officers resign under pressure from China, which had threatened the airline’s business on the mainland and seen pilots and flight crews sacked over their support for the protesters. Augustus Tang, the new CEO of Cathay, said in the original invitation that the event will be held “with a fabulous view of the Hong Kong island skyline”, but of course did not mention that view may be clouded by tear gas and water cannon fired by Hong Kong police.
What is unclear, and Cathay officials so far have also declined to comment, is how much pressure the airline was under from China to continue with the event. The late notification of the cancellation may have indicated that Beijing wanted to present the view that “everything is OK” and it’s “business as usual”, even though the city’s own leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, said the unrest and violence were bringing Hong Kong “to the brink of no return…We are questioning if we can live in this city safely”.