BEIJING (AFP) - China's state-run media has launched a coordinated attack on the company that runs Hong Kong's train network for its perceived support of pro-democracy protesters, echoing a campaign against Cathay Pacific airline.
As hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the financial hub approach their third month of rallying around democratic reforms, Beijing has upped its rhetoric against the movement - and any organisation appearing to support it.
On Thursday (Aug 22), Chinese state-backed media outlets accused Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) company of abetting protesters by offering them a free and "exclusive" train to escape from police, after a sit-in to mark a mob attack by suspected triad gang members one month earlier.
"MTR operates exclusive train for violent protesters in Hong Kong, and free of charge," tweeted Chinese official news agency Xinhua in English.
Instead of cooperating with the police, the Hong Kong railway system helped protesters "escape", wrote the nationalist Global Times in a Chinese-language op-ed.
The MTR "is telling Hong Kong society that radical demonstrators who have committed violent acts not only can avoid arrest by police but are ultimately able to enjoy free, special treatment", the paper added.
But MTR Corporation - in which the Hong Kong government remains a majority stakeholder - said in a Thursday statement that the trains were meant to help stranded passengers.
To ensure the safety of travellers and staff, the company said, it arranged for trains with passengers on board to avoid stopping at stations where there were "police actions to disperse the crowds".
Empty trains, however, were dispatched to pick up individuals who "might wish to leave stations as soon as possible", read the statement, which also condemned the vandalism of metro stops by some demonstrators.
The city's MTR Corporation is the latest company to feel the heat from Beijing's hardening rhetoric over more than two months of anti-government protests that have plunged Hong Kong into crisis.
Last week, Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific announced the shock resignation of its chief executive officer after the carrier was excoriated by Beijing because some of its staff had supported the pro-democracy protests.
During a citywide strike earlier this month, some of Cathay's 27,000-strong workforce joined in, including the union representing the airline's flight attendants.
China reacted swiftly, with the country's aviation regulator demanding that the airline prevent such employees from working on flights to the mainland or those routed through Chinese airspace.
State media also wrote a series of condemnations of Cathay, accusing it of not doing enough to rein in its workers. "The four sins of Cathay Pacific Airlines," read one headline by the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party.