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A Nobel win for China’s authoritarian machine

China’s third Nobel laureate is — finally — someone the authoritarian regime can celebrate. Beijing-based journalist Kway Teow on Mo Yan’s win and the government’s response.

China’s relationship with the rest of the planet is knotty at best. The world’s second-largest economy — a government-mandated phrase that most local publications commonly use as a second mention of the country — wants to fan the coals of industry and succeed on its own terms, but it is still yet to wean itself off the thrill of external approval.

Indeed, the announcement that the novelist Mo Yan had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature sparked celebrations only a notch or two below the reaction to hurdler Liu Xiang winning Olympic gold in 2004. State broadcaster CCTV threw away the script to its prime-time news broadcast, newspapers and in-flight magazines asserted that Mo’s win would “shift the focus to more previously unknown Chinese works”, and President Hu Jintao presumably got up in front of a mirror to work on his Sally Field. After all, a Nobel win must mean that the world really, really liked China.

There are few things as delicious as beating the barbarians at their own game, but the paroxysms of delight engulfing the country have generated a backlash. A China Daily editorial puts it best:

However, a distinct voice emerging from the intelligentsia says Mo is too close to the establishment to merit the Nobel, which, in their minds, is a testament to independence not only in thinking but also in posture.”

Some Chinese writers feel the Nobel should not have gone to a writer who is caught up in the machinery of authoritarianism. Before Mo’s victory, the writer pen-named Shinian Kanchai bitingly pointed out it would be a “perfect world” if the Nobel was won by a writer who had received a tacit seal of approval from the government by winning a state-backed literature prize last year.

This trajectory of criticism is particularly relevant when considering China’s reaction to the 2000 Nobel literature award, won by Gao Xingjian, who lives in exile as a citizen of France. The Chinese foreign ministry’s official statement was a marvel of wounded disapproval, sniffing that “the Nobel Literature prize has been used for ulterior political motives, and it is not worth commenting on”.

Many have commented, however, on Mo’s presumed sins, chief among which seems to be his willing participation with other writers and artists in a project to hand-copy a 1942 Mao Zedong speech that set out strict limitations for China’s arts and literature scene. Among its tenets was that punishment awaited writers who did not integrate their work into the Communist revolution.

The Guardian had a balanced take on the win but incorporated a backhanded broadside from China’s trusty enfant terrible, Ai Weiwei: “As an intellectual, I think he’s not a conscious one. He has been very clearly pursuing the party’s line and in several cases he has shown no respect for the independence of intellectuals.”

Even before his victory, Mo had been attacked by some compatriots, including the dissident writer Ma Jian, who last year was banned from returning to China. “Writers like Mo Yan may show a little criticism of Chinese society in their novels, but when the literary community in China is hurt, as it was with the arrest of Liu Xiaobo, they don’t write about it,” Ma said. “If you ask literary writers about politics, they reply that they don’t discuss politics, they just write literature.”

Such a response would have been characteristically taciturn for 57-year-old Mo — he was born Guo Moye, and his pen name translates into “do not speak”. This helps to explain the rate at which jaws plummeted when he called for the release of none other than Liu Xaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to much frowning from Beijing. At the same press conference, a nettled Mo took the opportunity to respond to his critics:

If they had read my books they would understand that my writings at that time took on a great deal of risk and were under pressure. Many of the people who have criticised me online are Communist Party members themselves. They also work within the system. And some have benefited tremendously within the system.”

It is worth remembering that many of Mo’s books have been banned in China, and that a much-cited speech Mo delivered at the 2009 Franfurt book fair contained a thesis for dissidence and a quiet scream against uniformity of opinion:

Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”

China may have struck it lucky with its third Nobel laureate — finally, this is a writer for whom the gears of propaganda can proudly clank. But Mo is now in a position of more influence than ever before, and his unexpected statement in support of Liu Xiabo may be the sign of a man aware that the story of his life is ripe for a rewrite.

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