Mo Yan and China's prize

The award of the Nobel literature prize to a Chinese writer favoured by the authorities provoked disputes both on the Chinese internet and in Swedish public life, says Temtsel Hao.

Temtsel Hao
19 December 2012

The hundred years of Nobel prize awards are full of controversy, especially so it seems when China is involved. The Nobel peace prizes awarded in 1989 to the Tibetan spiritual leader the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and in 2010 to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, have twice infuriated the Chinese authorities; while the literature award in 2000 to Gao Xingjian, an overseas Chinese writer, is seldom mentioned by Beijing. The pattern continued in 2012 when Chinese writer Mo Yan won the Nobel literature prize, though this time the government and officialdom in China were ecstatic: it was the dissident camp that was outraged, firing fierce criticism at Mo Yan for his alleged moral ambiguity over China's authoritarian system. Some, such as the exiled writer Mo Li, even accused the Nobel prize committee of the Swedish Academy of betraying the ideals underlying the prize (see "Mo Yan's Nobel, an ideal betrayed", 19 December 2012) .

The controversy followed Mo Yan during his visit to Stockholm to collect the prize. There was criticism over comments he had made on freedom of speech and censorship in China, and on the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo. Mo Yan offered to an American journalist his trademark subtle comment on restrictions on speech in China, telling her that if she could read Chinese and browse the Chinese internet, she might change her view on the matter.

At a news conference in the Swedish Academy, Mo Yan went further. He said that no country is completely free of media censorship, and that countries differ only in its degree and method; compared media censorship to airports' necessary safety and security screening; and emphasised his independence from any group pressure (here he cited his refusal to add his name to a petition to Chinese authorities to release Liu Xiaobo, signed by over 130 Nobel laureates).  His critics pointed out Mo Yan's independence relates to dissidents but not to the Chinese Communist Party, which Mo Yan adheres to.

Before Mo Yan gave his well-received Nobel lecture before a full audience in the grand hall of the Swedish Academy, Mo Li (who is unrelated to Mo Yan) and her Swedish friends distributed leaflets outside the hall to the arriving guests. The leaflet attack the Nobel literature committee for awarding Mo Yan, arguing that this raised Mo Yan to a level of greatness that he does not deserve and thus betrayed the prize’s humanist ideals.

There has been vigorous and heated debate about the award to Mo Yan on the Chinese internet. Few among the Swedish (or international) public may be aware of this, but a related debate did draw the attention of many Swedes. The Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), a right-wing party known for its anti-immigration position, won 5.7% of votes in the parliamentary election and secured twenty seats in parliament in the 2010 election. Later that year, the Nobel Foundation decided to ban representatives of the party from attending the official Nobel banquet.

In 2012, the choice of Mo Yan as the Nobel literature laureate provoked renewed discussion over that ban. Some Swedes pointed out the apparent contradiction that while a contributor to the Swedish democratic process was excluded from a formal Nobel occasion, a member of the Chinese Communist Party - an organisation without democratic credibility - was given a distinguished prize and honoured in the banquet.

Margreta Edstrom, one of those who distributed leaflets with Mo Li over Mo Yan's award, said that the debate on the Nobel committee's "double standard" had given the Sverigedemokraterna a boost and won them more public support. It seems that even after the dispute over Mo Yan's award dies down, its effects will continue to be felt in Europe and China alike.

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