Updated: Jun 14, 2020
My decade living and working in Europe was transformative for me as an individual. There is no part of my makeup that it did not influence and inform. The years as an executive, wife, language student, mother and expat in Prague shaped my world view, and the lens through which I perceive current events, history, art, beauty and civilization.
Most of us who emigrated to Prague in the late 1980's did so only with a tentative foothold. Yes, we had an apartment in Prague, but still clung to a place in London, or some other European city which was not part of the former Soviet Union. The commitment to reside full-time in Prague, even after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, was not one most "Westerners" pursued lightly. The fall of Communism and the new societal freedoms which burgeoned in the early 1990's, in what was then Czechoslovakia, had 50 years of hardship and isolation to overcome.
The hordes of Western expatriates descending upon Prague after it emerged from the defunct Soviet Bloc were equal parts idealistic and opportunistic. Many of us felt strongly that we were helping a fledgling democracy by stewarding it to a front-row seat to experience the ultimate goal of capitalism. In retrospect, and even at the time, if we were inclined toward self-awareness, we were also there to help ourselves.
I was made a Managing Director in Prague of a multinational at an age when peers of the same age and credentials in the US were happy with entry-level analyst positions. This was not due to my superiority of knowledge or business acumen, but to my willingness to settle in an environment where life, as one knew it in the West, was still a remote aspiration.
I think of Prague often now as I watch events in Hong Kong. I have been riveted by the protests and gradual shrinking of democratic norms on this island, now made to heel under the rule of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China is the exact legal name of this cosmopolitan city state. In 1997, when the British transferred rule of Hong Kong to China, it was unimaginable to those of us who called Prague home that any world capital should fear backsliding into Communist repression. Hong Kong was then, and still is a beacon for skyscrapers, financial markets and flagrant wealth. The days of turning a blind eye to state maneuverings and eloquent obfuscations to restrict economic and individual freedoms were tossed upon the same trash heaps as the Lenin statues in the former Eastern Bloc; weren't they?
For Westerners seeking to participate in the overhaul of the Czech economic system in the decade after 1989, economic freedom was synonymous with democracy and individual rights. Today such conflation of the two concepts is not so readily made. We now are well acquainted with a monolithic mainland China that enjoys worldwide renown as a capitalist titan, while still exercising oppressive control over the rights of its citizens to free speech and individual self-determination. Our trade war with China is the only battle Americans discuss , not our inclination to show solidarity for those fighting for basic human rights which are unavailable to the average Chinese citizen. The events of the last six months in Hong Kong hardly make the headlines here in the democratic, United States of America. For most, it is distantly irrelevant.
I can only imagine the disappointed shock amongst the thousands of Hongkongers who refuse to relinquish their freedoms as they stand up to armed police with umbrellas; the silence from the red, white and blue poster child of democracy has to be oddly deafening. We Americans view Hong Kong as a distant anomaly with little bearing upon us or our well-being. World War II taught a shattered world that the loss of freedom in nations across oceans could threaten even the largest and most established democracies. It is a cognizance all too vivid for the citizens of Hong Kong as they watch the ground shift beneath them. Economic prosperity does not shield them from the loss of the individual human rights which have anchored them to terra firma.
Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul and freedom activist articulated this paradox today with the simple question, "What is money without freedom?".