Struggling for Liberty: Czechoslovakia Yesterday, Hong Kong Today

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by Alex Williams 

A long winter beckons for the free world. As Hong Kong is subsumed into the Chinese state, its year of dauntless dissension has come to naught. A despairing chill threatens to rattle the frontiers of the post-1989 world, the likes of which had not been felt since the formation of the Communist bloc in the late 1940s. A Power has, for the first time since Soviet Russia, attained a sufficient power to construct its own sphere of dominion over peoples that could once have looked to the free world for protection. It is therefore of some value, particularly given the manner in which coronavirus has muted the potency of Western civilization today, to examine the parallel between the present negation of Hong Kong autonomy and the loss of another advanced, industrialized land in 1948 to illiberal plotting. The convictions, conduct, spirit, hopes, and apprehensions of the West in 1948 bequeath a lasting hope that the West in 2020 can, as before, ultimately prevail against a restless totalitarian force in the world.

After 1945, Stalin acted with swiftness to secure his empire. The European East, brought under the possession of the Red Army by the German retreat, comprised the youngest, most agrarian, and least developed lands on the continent. Its subjection to brutal Axis administration left it devastated and in no position to resist its nominal liberators. Even as Stalin assured the Western states that the fundamentals of democracy, however he interpreted them to be, would be respected, the mass-assembly of subservient socialist states was already in motion. This formula for the rapid installation of regimes, developed throughout the twentieth century and perfected by 1945, oversaw the uniform imposition of fraudulent elections upon states from Bulgaria to Poland, all of which guaranteed socialist paramountcy. Society was immediately subordinated to the State, which outlawed opposition, institutionalized censorship, criminalized free expression, and the enshrinement of centralized economic dictation into policy. By winter, 1948, this work was largely accomplished, with the English and Americans resigned to powerlessly witness the forcible incorporation of a hundred million more Europeans into standardized socialist models. Soon only Czechoslovakia remained, an isolated democracy that also had been last to fall before war in September, 1939.

As the most stable, industrialized, metropolitan, proportionally middle-class, and institutionally developed land of the East, Czechoslovakia with its democratic promise was always destined to be the most difficult to integrate into the Marxist model. However mutilated by the War, its position recalls the enduring truth that the more enriched the proletariat becomes, the greater is its degree of confidence in free markets. As Czechoslovakia, and predominantly its Czech west, had industrially developed enough to render a democratic triumph for Marxism improbable, an undemocratic operation was necessary to impose from without that which could not be invited from within.

On February 21, after a long period of political tension, a Soviet-sponsored coup unleashed an organized power throughout Czechoslovakia. Armed partisans and police seized Prague, Communist-led demonstrations suffocated counter-demonstrations and any rival civic infrastructure, and an infiltrated officer corps confined the Czechoslovak army to its barracks. Poor Edvard Beneš, forced to witness the end of Czechoslovakia a decade earlier, capitulated by February 25 to the Communist putsch in hopes to avert civil war and Soviet intervention. The Communists soon consolidated their power, presenting a Soviet-derived constitutional charter and compelling the resignations of non-Communist officials. The Social Democrats were absorbed, dissident elements were imprisoned or exiled, and the death of Beneš in September ushered in the formal adoption of a one-party state. The last of the Eastern European democracies had fallen, unable to match the rapid deployment of Communist energies during “Victorious February.”

The event astonished the free world, facilitating the decision by Harry Truman to commit to the stabilization of nations yet to fall. If the brief promise of Czechoslovak democracy could face extinction, what then prevented European states of comparable stature from falling likewise, such as Italy or Finland or Austria? What nation could now believe that its stability immunized it from the plotting of minority political elements? Whatever chance Czechoslovakia had to survive, its tragic admission to forty-year dictatorship holds the most consequential parallel to the regression of Hong Kong into darkness today.

In 2019 it appeared for a while that the old inevitability, one reinforced by the last thirty years of extraordinary democratic expansion, would endure. The image of millions of citizens, possessed of a great purchasing power and correspondingly endowed with a new awareness of their rights and dignities, mobilized for peaceful protest before the backdrop of a glittering urban modernity, appeared unshakeable. Beijing dared not make a clumsy gesture of repression and witnessed instead a resounding result for pro-democratic candidates, delivered with record turnout, late in the year. The prospect of a vibrant free-market city, of judicial independence and property rights, being subjected to the conditions of authoritarianism appeared as absurd as New York City or Tokyo being subjected to Stalinism. Yet, as Prague had proven, power is not always aligned with the popular will, and the power balance so disfavored Hong Kong that only an instance of upheaval was necessary to distract its powerful citizenry enough for Beijing to pounce.

Coronavirus upset the discipline of Hong Kong resistance, just as World War Two had done likewise to Czechoslovakia. The turbulence offered Beijing the chance to legislate a security law in late May, one whose nebulous wording made all expressions of resistance potentially prosecutable. So swift was its enshrinement into law that Hong Kongers could scarcely mobilize as they had done before. Such is the nature of coups, in which a disoriented majority, no matter how affluent and powerful, is forced to witness a seizure of power in the one instant their hands leave the steering wheel.

It is not possible to keep a fire alight when it is deprived of oxygen. No doubt the stifling of Hong Kong administers a feeling of vulnerability, of encroachment, that free peoples had not encountered since 1948. The February coup therefore offers a connective hope to the present, that even if a totalitarian state is to lose its patience with unwilling regions, whether under its control by Red Army occupation or nominal sovereignty, its further ambitions cannot break the vigor of a united front of free peoples. Though the Western allies were unable to resist the descent of Soviet tyranny over Czechoslovakia, its fate recalls a comfort of history. It reminds that the Cold War which was to follow between the capitalist and Communist states would eventually cast the latter as a failed experiment of the twentieth century.

As the Chinese Communist Party, with expanding audacity, commits itself to a perilous vision in which human civilization is systematized by the omnipotence of technology, one recalls the words of Friedrich Hayek regarding the fatal conceit, the illusion that man can “shape the world around him according to his wishes.” The notion of a world in which perfection is programmable by algorithm will inevitably combust whenever it comes into contact with human nature, for humans dream; whether of careers to pursue, friends to make, places to live, hopes to realize, or stories to tell, we are irrational creatures and experience from a dimension irreconcilable with the physical world. Without this truth, inalienable to our nature and transcendent throughout generations, there is no conception of virtue, and its evidence was reborn in the children and grandchildren of the Czechoslovaks who lived in 1948. If, even after forty years of social engineering, the calls for peaceful revolution in Czechoslovakia still rang all the clearer in 1989, so too will citizens of Hong Kong preserve an innate ability to dream of which no Power in the world can deprive them. The free peoples of the world, among whom the liberty to dream is protected, can take heart in this truth and its timeless application throughout the ages.

Alex Williams recently completed his freshman year at Brandeis University. His interests include history, demography, film, and fine arts.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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