Issues come and go with each American presidential cycle, but one thing that seems to have stayed constant for the past several cycles is China-bashing. With all the political accusations flying around — of China stealing jobs, stealing intellectual property, manipulating its currency and dumping exports — the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan (real name Guan Moye) added to this conversation. Mo isn’t the first Chinese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the Chinese government would want you to think that. Days after he won the prize, Chinese officials sent out this censorship directive:
“To all websites nationwide: In light of Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, monitoring … must be strengthened. Be firm in removing all comments which disgrace the Party and the government, defame cultural work, mention Nobel laureates Liu Xiaobo and Gao Xingjian and associated harmful material. Without exception, block users from posting for ten days if their writing contains malicious details. Reinforce on-duty staff during the weekend and prioritize this management task.”
Liu Xiaobo seems like an obvious choice because he won the Nobel Peace Prize campaigning for human rights in China. But Gao Xingjian is technically the first Chinese writer that won the Literature Prize for works written in Chinese. The only problem was that he was exiled to France for pro-democracy sentiments and condemning the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Mo Yan — which means “don’t speak” in Chinese — happens to not be critical of the government, unlike his pesky colleagues. He’s a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He is the vice chairman of the state-run Writers Association. He boycotted events that included dissident writers. He honored Mao, whose policies may have killed more people than Stalin’s, by hand copying a speech Mao made condemning Beethoven and Chopin as “bourgeois decadence” and that “literature and art are subordinate to politics.” He wrote a victory poem to the disgraced politician Bo Xilai: “Sing-red-strike-black roars mightily … as an official you hold dear your good name in history.”
It’s fair to say that an artist’s oeuvre shouldn’t be judged with his or her political leanings: Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics is one example. Chinese students reacted similarly when Gao Xingjian won in 2000: they liked his plays, not his politics. Yet Mo Yan has refuted this, beginning The Garlic Ballads with this Stalin quote: “Novelists are forever trying to distance themselves from politics, but the novel itself closes in on politics. Novelists are so concerned with ‘man’s fate’ that they tend to lose sight of their own fate. Therein lies their tragedy.” This might mean Mo’s being shrewd by subtly criticizing the government, but he himself said that writers aren’t restrained at all in present-day China. Has “hallucinatory realism,” the CCP’s favorite new catchphrase from Mo’s award declaration, affected Mo’s mental capacity?
Chinese dissidents are predictably dismayed. “Mo Yan, the first Chinese Nobel winner who lives inside China but outside a prison,” one writes bitterly. “For those Chinese pursuing freedom, it’s very unfair,” someone agreed. “Are people in the Swedish Academy a bunch of decrepits or what?” someone asks incredulously. Ai Weiwei tweeted, “A writer is a liar if he can’t face truth; a literary prize is a curse on conscience if it shuns the question of justice.”
Ai’s tweet points out a serious flaw with defenses, pointing out “subversive elements” in Mo Yan’s work like describing “corrupt authority.” Mo describes corrupt local officials, but they are something everybody already knows about. The big systemic issues that target the Politburo — the issues that matter — are never mentioned. The closest he gets to this is in his novel Red Sorghum, but that deals with Japanese atrocities and is hardly bad for the CCP with recent anti-Japanese sentiment. Now that Mo has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Chinese officials will feel vindicated, and this only means bad things for dissidents. Mo may have said he wants to see Liu “freed,” but that won’t lead anywhere — it seems more like a ploy to look legitimate in the West. I’ll believe him when he starts talking about Tiananmen Square.
Yes, I am bitter. The Nobel Prizes are inherently political, but if they must be politicized they should at least follow the original intentions of their founder. Alfred Nobel specified that the prize should be awarded to the person who had “the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” How is compromising your own beliefs idealistic? The Nobel committee should be awarding prizes to more people like Liu Xiaobo and Gao Xingjian, who actually have ideals. The Nobel also has nothing to do with talent: if Ibsen, Proust and Tolstoy didn’t win, then Mo Yan can live without a Nobel Prize. The award only gives officials a bigger power trip to censor more, which is detrimental to a culture that has been stifled since one of the biggest intellectual repressions in modern history, 1956’s Hundred Flowers Campaign.
Officials might even be repressing the next laureate for the Literature Prize, but no one will ever know because he’s locked up, under a trumped up tax charge, learning his lesson: “don’t speak.”