The Young and Restless: Czech CG Lucie Čiháková

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Into the Occupy storm, the Czech diplomat Lucie Čiháková arrived ready for action, bringing a next-gen diplomatic viewpoint with her.

Ms Lucie Čiháková flew into Hong Kong in the midst of a raging storm. Not a typhoon, but the political maelsrom that was Occupy Central, the genesis of the Umbrella Movement. A new phenomena for Hong Kong, the new Czech Consul General had the background to take it all in stride.

“I come from a part of the world where people sometimes express their views by taking to the streets as part of the democracy, and where diversity of views is seen as healthy,” the Czech says.

“It’s to keep the communications going, the dialogue going, so that the problems would not remain on the streets,” she says. Dialogue is the key; this is spoken from the point of view of an experienced and passionate diplomat.

Entering a new millennium

The fall of the Iron Curtain in the nineties turned a new page in European history. The change is especially significant in former Communist countries—such as the now Czech Republic. A whole new world was opened up to the post-Communist youth.

“Because of this recent history, when you look at the diplomatic corps of East and Central European countries, you find younger people,” the second-youngest consul general in Hong Kong explains.

Purge, then binge

Young faces are very common among diplomats of post-Communist European countries, partly due to the lustration of Party officials in the nineties, and partly due to the huge demand for diplomats during the NATO expansion and EU enlargement in the new millennium.

“For many post-Communist countries in Europe, there was sort of a fast-track for the new generation in the nineties,” she explains. “And then again, there was another fast-track ten years later, when we’re entering the EU and NATO. […] Suddenly, the Foreign Office is looking for new recruits with language and skills.”

Ms Čiháková was one of them. Her first encounter with diplomacy was in 2002, when she was still to finish post-graduate studies and had to find something to do while pending graduation.

This is, perhaps, the lovely agony of democratic countries and organisations, such as the EU: In order to get something that is important for your country, you must be able to give in, sometimes painfully, elsewhere.

“I bumped into friend and she told me, ‘Oh, we are looking for people who are willing to work for six months to prepare for the Prague NATO Summit,’” she recalls. “Then I said, ‘Well, that’s perfect! Because I still need to finish my final thesis and final exams. That’d be a perfect way to fill in the remaining time before I graduate!’—so I applied and got the job. ”

Once Ms Čiháková was in, she found she didn’t want to get out.

Diplomacy evolving

When we speak of diplomacy, we often understand it in the classic sense. The old school view suggests a scene where two conflicting countries sit opposite to each other at a large table, discussing ‘big’ things like ‘national security’, ‘trade’, or ‘currencies’. Yet this is the 21st century and diplomacy comes in many forms and each becomes increasingly specialised.

Ms Čiháková’s moved on from the Prague NATO Summit into working on energy issues. While important, it was often overshadowed by other more “strategically important” issues.

“At the time when I started working [on energy], it was just one of the many policies,” she recalls. “But then gradually, over the years, when I was there, it became the policy.”

It was the time when energy became the tool for leverage in European politics. Moreover, Ms  Čiháková was under pressure to perform well for her country because that was also a critical time for establishing the Czech Republic’s standing and reputation in the EU.

“Russia started to play with gas and oil deliveries,” she explains. “The first time it happened was 2009, when the Czech Republic had its first presidency of the EU, so it was a super exciting time—and difficult work.”

Energy diplomacy, according to Ms Čiháková, was not that much different from classic diplomacy. The wrestling over the negotiation table is the same.

“It is the same,” she remarks. “You come to the negotiations with a position, and you need to fight for your national interests, and present your arguments, well supported with evidences.”

Ms Čiháková explains that diplomats don’t only reach out to other countries; their diplomatic skills are just as vital to apply to internal affairs within the borders.

“Sometimes the hard part is not to present the arguments and fight for what is right for your country,” she says, “The hard part is actually when you come back home with a compromise proposal to persuade your own government that the compromise is a good one.”

This is, perhaps, the lovely agony of democratic countries and organisations, such as the EU: In order to get something that is important for your country, you must be able to give in, sometimes painfully, elsewhere.

Unofficial Asia

After years of hard work on energy and EU affairs, Ms Čiháková decided she needed to recharge. She applied for a sabbatical year.

“I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I wanted to travel around the world,” she says. “But I got stuck in Southeast Asia and never made it around the world,” she laughs.

Having had several years in seemingly endless negotiations and chasing work deadlines, she tried a wholly different lifestyle during this year-long break.

“I had no plan—actually, that was the best part,” she recalls cheerfully. “Before [the sabbatical year], my agenda was always pre-planned with details. I felt like I need this big break with no plans and no time limitations.”

Coming from an inland country, the Czech enjoyed the blue seas of Southeast Asia.

“I went diving. I did the courses and I was teaching. That was my way of spending time,” she says.

She also travelled around the region. “I went to Nepal for two months—wherever I felt like going,” she says. “I stopped by Hong Kong several times, all very briefly.”

“It’s a great job that never allows you to burn out… You keep learning new things… It never gets boring.”

After a year in Asia, Ms Čiháková wanted to stay even longer in this region. Once she saw a posting opening in Hong Kong, she applied.

“After working for more than ten years on European affairs, I needed a change. And because I fell in love with Asia after the sabbatical year, I wanted to find a place here. When Hong Kong became available, I was very excited,” she says.

Official once more

In her current office in the Czech Consulate General in Hong Kong, large glass windows overlook the Wan Chai coast. A clear view of Kowloon across the harbour can be seen.

“[During the sabbatical year], I had only been to Hong Kong Island,” she says. “I only discovered how my view of Hong Kong was so limited until right now.”

Czechs in Hong Kong

It is estimated that around 300 Czechs currently reside in Hong Kong and Macau. The community is fairly diverse, from professionals to businesspersons, artists to journalists.

Before, the Czech community in Hong Kong was mostly adult expats. There were a small number of Czech families in Hong Kong, in which most of their children go to local international schools. As for the present, however, Czechs in Hong Kong are beginning to “settle down”, according to Ms Čiháková.

“More [Czech] babies are born here,” she says. “We might need a Czech school here in the future.”

The modern diplomat loves her job. “It’s a great job that never allows you to burn out—you can change every few years, not only the place you’re working, but also the area you focus on, so you keep learning new things. You get a lot of inspiration,” she says. “It never gets boring.”