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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012

A Chinese Nobel laureate Beijing can embrace

HONG KONG — China's reaction to the Nobel Prize awards this year was markedly different from that of two years ago, when it denounced the Norwegian Nobel Committee for awarding the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident serving an 11-year prison term.

This year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry waxed lyrical in its delight over the conferment of the Nobel Prize in literature on Mo Yan — the first time the prize has been given to a writer living in China.

"The Chinese people have a long history and a glorious culture," said Hong Lei, the spokesman. "This is a treasure shared by all humanity. We hope our friends in every country around the world can better understand Chinese culture and get a better feeling for the charm of Chinese literature."

At the same time, Hong reiterated China's charge that the decision two years ago to give the peace prize to Liu amounted to "grave meddling in China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty." And Li Changchun, the leader in charge of propaganda, congratulated Mo Yan, saying that "Chinese writers can contribute more to the prosperity and development of Chinese culture, as well as the progress of human civilization."

It is no secret that China had been hoping for a long time to receive the world's top award for literature, which it considers just recognition of the country's rich culture and of its status in the world. As the official news agency Xinhua said, "The Chinese waited a century for their Nobel literature prize dream to come true." Previously, such prominent Chinese writers as Lu Xun and Ba Jin had been considered for this award, but their writings were from the 1920s and 1930s. Lu Xun died in 1936 and, while Ba Jin lived to the ripe old age of 100 before dying in 2005, he ceased fiction writing after the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949.

Indeed, writers by and large ceased being creative under the Communist government. Virtually all writers were persecuted in political campaigns launched by Chairman Mao Zedong during the 1950s and 1960s. Literature at the time was considered strictly a propaganda tool to be wielded by the party.

So the fact that there are genuinely independent writers in China today is in itself a sign of the profound changes in the country since Mao's death in 1976, when there was little freedom of expression to speak of, not to say writers considered worthy of receiving the Nobel Prize in literature.

Just as China in 2010 believed that the West was honoring a dissident without much of a following in the country to humiliate the government, so this year it was relieved that someone whom it considered to be part of the Chinese mainstream was chosen.

As the Global Times, a party newspaper, said: "No matter what inspired the award this time, it is a welcome decision. We hope such appreciation of Chinese mainstream ideas can extend further."

From China's standpoint, there could not have been a better, or a safer, choice. After all, Mo Yan — the pen name of Guan Moye — was not just a member of the Communist Party, he was a part of the establishment. In 2009, he was part of the official delegation to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. When dissident writers Dai Qing and Bei Dao walked in, he and other members of the official delegation walked out.

But Mo Yan has shown that even those in the Chinese "mainstream" don't necessarily agree with the government all the time. The new Nobel laureate said at his first press conference, held in his hometown in Shandong Province, that he hoped Liu, who still has eight more years to serve, can "achieve his freedom as soon as possible."

It must have surprised the Chinese government that Mo Yan, who is vice chairman of the China Writers' Association, would stray so far from the party line so quickly after acquiring celebrity status. The official media, as expected, censored his words. Still, China must realize that it cannot expect to totally control the speech and the writings of a Nobel laureate.

Since Mo Yan plans to continue to work in China, he will have to tread a fine line, not offending the party too egregiously while maintaining the intellectual integrity of a Nobel laureate. His acceptance speech in December should provide a clue as to how well he will walk this tightrope.

Frank Ching is a journalist and political commentator based in Hong Kong.

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