The award of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature to the Chinese writer Mo Yan (near right) is “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights,” a fellow laureate recently complained.
The decision was a “catastrophe” and “extremely upsetting”, said fellow author Herta Müller (far right), who won the Nobel in 2009 for her own, often-censored novels drawing on experience of life under Ceausescu’s Securitate.
Mo “celebrates censorship,” she said. “The Chinese themselves say that Mo Yan is an official of the same rung as a (government) minister.”
So it’s no surprise that observers like Perry Link are asking: “should a prize of this magnitude go to a writer who is ‘inside the system’ of an authoritarian government that imprisons other writers—of whom Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (a ‘convicted criminal,’ in the Chinese government’s view) is only the most famous example? “
He cites satirist Wang Xiaohong who tweeted her concern for the deceased Mr. Nobel, squirming in his grave:
Two years ago my people gave a prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese government. Today they gave another prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese people. My goodness. The whole of China offended in only two years.
Link continues: In December 2009, after the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s unexpectedly harsh prison sentence of eleven years, Cui Weiping, a film scholar, conducted a telephone survey of more than a hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals to get their responses. Many, at personal risk, expressed disgust and told Cui she could publish what they said. Mo Yan, who also gave permission to publish what he said, said, “I’m not clear on the details, and would rather not comment. I have guests at home right now and am busy.”
When it was China’s turn to be the “guest of honor” at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, Mo joined the official delegation in walking out of a symposium that featured two dissident writers.
“We did not come here for a lesson in democracy. Those times are over,” said the head of the delegation.
But, Link continues: most galling to Mo Yan’s critics was his agreement, in June 2012, to join in a state-sponsored project to get famous authors to hand-copy Mao Zedong’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” in celebration of their seventieth anniversary. These “Talks”—which were the intellectual handcuffs of Chinese writers throughout the Mao era and were almost universally reviled by writers during the years between Mao’s death in 1976 and the Beijing massacre in 1989—were now again being held up for adulation.
Two more writers who speak sonorously about truth and the judgment of history, both personal friends of Liu Xiaobo, were also honored, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Louisa Greve recently observed.
Liao Yiwu, a highly respected poet and chronicler of the downtrodden, received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on October 14. He spent four years in prison for his poem “Massacre,” which he wrote hours before the killings on Tiananmen Square in 1989. In his acceptance speech, Liao dared to touch what is probably the most lethal third rail in the long list of neuralgic topics for the ruling Communist Party – China’s “territorial integrity” and the “unity of the motherland.”
Yu Jie, became the third Chinese writer to be honored this autumn when he received the Train Foundation’s 2012 Civil Courage Prize on October 17 in New York. Now in exile like Liao, Yu held firm to his faith that history seeks truth as a source of hope even after he was threatened, kidnapped, and tortured for his writings.
Yu said he can’t keep quiet because “there are far too many truths waiting to be revealed,” including “the inevitability of the collapse of Chinese Communist Tyranny.”
“Mo Yan writes about people at the bottom of society, and in The Garlic Ballads (1988) he clearly sides with poor farmers who are bullied and bankrupted by predatory local officials,” Link observes:
Sympathy for the downtrodden has had a considerable market in the world of Chinese letters in recent times, mainly because the society does include a lot of downtrodden and they do invite sympathy. But it is crucial to note the difference between the way Mo Yan writes about the fate of the downtrodden and the way writers like Liu Xiaobo, Zheng Yi, and other dissidents do. Liu and Zheng denounce the entire authoritarian system, including the people at the highest levels. Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture.
It is, however, a standard tactic of the people at the top in China to attribute the ordeals of the populace to misbehavior by lower officials and to put out the message that “here at the top we hear you, and sympathize; don’t worry that there is anything wrong with our system as a whole.” Twenty years ago, when Chinese people had access only to state-sponsored news sources, most of them believed in such assurances; today, with the Internet, fewer do, but the message is still very effective. Writers like Mo Yan are clear about the regime’s strategy, and may not like it, but they accept compromises in how to put things. It is the price of writing inside the system.
Another leading dissident, Chen Guangcheng, was recently honored (right) for his work and “courageous action to promote or protect freedom and democracy.
“He began by defending his right as a blind person under Chinese law to be exempt from taxes, a right his local government did not respect,” said the NED’s Carl Gershman, paying tribute to Chen at the award ceremony.
“He then helped others defend their rights by knowing the law and explaining their case, and helping them file the case in court. He helped disabled people and orphans claim their right to a small state stipend,” he said, “and peasants to defend their land against confiscation by the state. He also exposed the massive use by the Chinese state of forced abortion and involuntary sterilization to implement its cruel and inhuman One-Child Policy.”
The dissident artist Ai Weiwei said that Mo Yan “has been very clearly pursuing the party’s line and in several cases he has shown no respect for the independence of intellectuals”.
Defenders of Mo Yan credit him with “black humor,” writes Link,
Perhaps. But others, including descendants of the victims of these outrages, might be excused for wondering what is so funny. From the regime’s point of view, this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve. These are sensitive topics, and they are potentially explosive, even today. …..
Chinese writers today, whether “inside the system” or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government. This inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways. Liu Xiaobo’s choices have been highly unusual. Mo Yan’s responses are more “normal,” closer to the center of a bell curve. It would be wrong for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo. But it would be even more wrong to mistake the clear difference between the two.
Chen Guangcheng was a recipient in absentia of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award.