‘When small men begin to cast big shadows’, wrote the Chinese intellectual Lin Yutang, ‘it means the sun is about to set.’ It is a dictum that, like many, functions neatly in reverse.
When small countries stand up to the great, it might well be a sign of a new day.
The small nation of Czechia brought us Swarovski crystal, Sigmund Freud, Skoda cars, Pilsener and Kafka’s Josef K.
Now add Pavel Novotny, poker player, satirist and the mayor of Reporyje, one of 22 Prague districts and home to around 5,000 people, who wrote an obscenity-rich letter to the Chinese foreign minister some weeks ago demanding an apology for his attack on Czech Senate president Milos Vystrcil.
Monty Python’s Michael Palin says that the Czechs are among the world’s funniest people. Novotny’s abrupt démarche is worthy of a far longer disquisition on a Czech cultural DNA of defiant social humour, usually brewed alongside earnest beer consumption.
However, this amusing verbal mooning flags some serious considerations for Australia as it gauges the dregs of its own China relationship. Are we reading it right?
Novotny’s screed is a rude aside in a post–Velvet Revolution history of values-based Czech foreign policy. It came hard on the heels of an 89-strong delegation led by Vystrcil to Taiwan. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, rebuked Vystrcil with the threat that he would ‘pay a heavy price’. A few days later Vystrcil, channelling John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 Berlin declaration against the Soviet menace, responded in Taiwan’s parliament, ‘I am Taiwanese.’
The Czechs don’t just think in decades but, like the Chinese, in centuries and the sweep of great tides of power. Few countries have suffered the hostile buffeting and inversion of national realities of the Czech lands in so short a time. Imagine if between the return of ANZAC forces in 1918 and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia’s borders had been redrawn four times, and we had experienced six different political systems?
My grandmother was born in an Austro-Hungarian empire and buried in the sixth version of a Czech republic. In between, her country encountered two world wars, Nazi invasion, Russian liberation and Russian invasion, a coup d’état, a people’s revolution, democratic and totalitarian governments, protectorate status, and at least four geographic iterations of the nation.
Such an embarrassment of big ideas in so little time.
Between 1918 and the Nazi invasion in 1938 Czechoslovakia was Central Europe’s only democracy, with a cosmopolitan mix of Germans, Slavs, Jews and Roma. It was an industrial powerhouse with one of the best-equipped armies and highest standards of living in Europe. And then, in a political poker game played between Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, it was lost. Czech political instinct is keened to threats that turn national fortune on a dime, and twist lives forever.
Moreover, the Czechs are savvy to the force of ideas.
Ideology spawned the tyrannies that swamped that small nation, and ideas insistently imbued with the dignity of the individual at their core eventually drove them off. Vaclav Havel, the dissident jailbird and playwright and first president of a post-communist and ‘open society’ Czechoslovakia, once wrote, ‘Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.’
Humour was central to Havel’s sensibility as an element of moral resistance. Ridicule leavened the humourless and homicidal obscenity of police states with their drumbeats of empty rhetoric, social dehumanisation, and institutionalised cruelty. The urge to ridicule the seemingly colossal throws up characters with the chutzpah of a Good Soldier Svejk or a Pavel Novotny, the small guy thumbing his nose at emperors and dictators.
Havel’s major work was The power of the powerless, written in 1978 in the grinding depths of communism’s chokehold on Eastern Europe. The essence of his resistance manifesto was a description of the collective potential power of disparate individual acts against what was then one of the most unbending of Eastern Bloc nations. People critique democracy as chaotic and slow to act, but, in its single-mindedness and intolerance for dissent, totalitarianism is often slower to think.
That’s why the Czechs are worth observing, as small states contemplate the depth of their exposure to the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘hidden hand’, detailed in the new book of the same name. If you instinctively react against conspiracy theories, or neat linear explanations of causality, or the capacity of any large and complex state to organise covertly and consistently to a given end, then you ought to be suspicious of claims that the CCP is intent on weakening a variety of target states through a broad spectrum of organised, ideologically driven, and novel forms of subversion.
But if you believe also that ideology is a force that must be reckoned with; and if you sniff the absolutist instincts of President Xi Jinping which are imbedded in a veneration of Maoism; and if you note the mass persecution of China’s minorities and surveillance of her people as China reorganises socially and politically; and if you absorb publicly available CCP warfare doctrines that openly proclaim the kinds of networked ‘multi-vector’ subterfuge now under scrutiny in Western and Asian countries; and if you agree that acts that have ‘no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance’, then you might be concerned.
In a world where openness is being retooled and turned against open societies, what can we glean from the Czechs?
First, the Czechs get the value of values.
The values-led foreign policy proclaimed by Havel that has almost entirely dominated their post-communist era is a product of a society that suffered at close quarters a surveillance state that trashed individual rights and discounted moral worth. The rule of law, human rights, individual liberty and a regard for civic participation, self-determination and minority rights are values now deeply embedded in the Czech polity. In short, values are interests in the foreign policy battle of ideas, both a bellwether of malign intent and a first line of defence.
Second, the Czechs get the methods of totalitarianism and the intentions that lie behind them.
Like all former Eastern Bloc allies, they know most of the covert modus operandi of entities like Russia and other former totalitarian states that promote social discord, doubt and mistrust in adversary nations through misinformation and influence operations that lay down the trackwork for long-term infiltration. In 2018, the Czechs were among the first to warn of the dangers of Huawei’s pursuit of premier provider status in the EU’s rollout of 5G technology. Other countries have since followed suit.
Third, the Czechs get that size matters.
In its last public annual report, Czechia’s premier intelligence agency, the Security Information Service (BiS) named the two principal threats. Russia could never be a surprise. Mention of the behemoth China as a principal equal challenge, however, is more unexpected. Despite Czechia’s negligible resident Chinese population, obvious geographic separation, and very limited economic exposure compared with Australia or the EU as a whole, the BiS flagged the presence in the republic of a full spectrum of active Chinese intelligence organisations.
These state and CCP agents are intent on prosecuting what the Australian military academic David Kilkullen calls ‘liminal warfare’. The broad spectrum of activities (tracked by the Czech Map!nfluence group) might individually seem benign and distinct from one another but, when interpreted as an organised and protracted campaign, reveal a design to gradually enervate effective national responses to political influence by the CCP.
When Vystrcil addressed the Taiwanese parliament, he was addressing a kindred nation, and harkening well beyond J.F.K.’s Berlin speech. He was reflecting a stark Czech realism of the late 1930s when a menacing Germany threatened the adolescent Czechoslovak state on its doorstep. Imbued with the ideology of the Nazi party, Germany claimed the Czechoslovak territory by virtue of geography, history, race and evolutionary right.
Stoked by religious ideology, the Thirty Years War that killed as many as 8 million Europeans in the early 17th century began and finished in the Czech lands. Today, the Czechs are among the world’s most irreligious (and skeptical) people. ‘Keep the company of those who seek the truth’, wrote Havel, ‘run from those who have found it.’ In the looming battle of political ideas that are shaping our century, Pavel Novotny’s letter is a notable small act of resistance in a high-stakes game.
Gordon Weiss has worked since the mid-1990s for the United Nations, spanning a broad range of responsibilities and interests. He is a senior fellow at Artis International.
Featured image: Madoka Ikegami/Pool/Getty Images.
This article was published by ASPI on October 24, 2020.