The World from Berlin: 'Mo Yan Has Long Since Sided with Beijing'

Beijing is elated, but critics are questioning whether the Swedish Academy sent the right message to China's regime by awarding apolitical writer Mo Yan this year's Nobel Prize in literature. German editorialists on Friday acknowledge his talent, but urge a continued focus on human rights.

Mo Yan has proven to be a controversial choice for the Nobel Prize in literature. Zoom
AP

Mo Yan has proven to be a controversial choice for the Nobel Prize in literature.

While most critics agree that this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in literature is an excellent writer, many aren't sure the honor was the right message to send the regime in his home country of China.

After the Swedish Academy announced on Thursday that prolific novelist Mo Yan had become the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the prestigious prize, Beijing was quick to celebrate it as a national triumph. In a letter to the China Writers' Association, to which Mo belongs, the Communist Party's propaganda chief Li Changchun wrote that the award "reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing influence of China."

The historic news was also splashed across Chinese newspapers on Friday in a flurry of national pride -- unlike two years ago when imprisoned democratic activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Back then, Beijing spurned the accolade, calling it an affront to the award's tradition. In 2000, Beijing also disowned exiled writer and critic Gao Xingjian, now a French citizen, when he became the only other Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

This time around, it is activists who are upset. Critics in China and abroad say that Mo's role as a Communist Party member and vice president of the China Writers' Association place him too close to the repressive regime and compromise his creative independence.

Prominent artist and activist Ai Weiwei told the Associated Press on Friday that the award was "shameful," alleging that Mo cooperates with a system that is "constantly poisoning" its people. "(The Swedish Academy) mocks the ones who dare to raise their voice and opinion, and ignore the sacrifice some have made to gain that right," he said.

'Literary Merit Alone'

The Swedish Academy has tried to extract itself from the political debate, however. "This is a literature prize that is awarded on literary merit alone," said Permanent Secretary Peter Englund. "We don't take other things into consideration."

For his part, Mo told a press conference on Friday that he hoped Nobel Peace Prize winner and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo would "achieve freedom soon." He also said he would continue writing in the same style he always has.

A popular writer on the life in rural China, one of Mo's best-known novels in the English-speaking world is "Red Sorghum," which was adapted into an award-winning film in 1987.

Mo is known for delicately highlighting controversial issues in China without criticizing them, though his second novel, "The Garlic Ballads," was banned for its depiction of a farmers' uprising.

German commentators on Friday explore the significance of the award. Some contrast it with the planned award on Sunday of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association's Peace Prize to exiled Chinese dissident author Liao Yiwu.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Mo Yan is a great writer, and because the Nobel Prize is awarded for writing, it is well-deserved. His critics, particularly in China, scold him as an opportunist for kowtowing to the party. … But those who have never been subject to such a regime shouldn't rush to make such judgements."

"Besides, perhaps there will also be reason for his critics to be pleased about the honor for Mo Yan. Namely that it is an opportunity to ask where the first Chinese Nobel laureate is now. Does anyone remember? Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize? For nearly four years, Liu has been imprisoned for essays in which he calls for civil rights."

"Now is the moment to break the silence and remind the world of Liu's fate. And to remind Beijing that the respect from the world that the Chinese regime so longs for -- and that it sees as symbolized through the Nobel Prize -- will only come when it respects the rights and dignity of its citizens."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"When it comes to cultural signals directed at China, this week has been auspicious. In Mo Yan the Swedish Academy has chosen a Nobel laureate who chooses subjects outside of political controversy for his novels and stories. And on Sunday the persecuted dissident writer Liao Yiwu will receive the Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is in no way a contradiction."

"It shows that the academy believes in a space beyond political or cultural boundaries where authors can freely write in their books about life experiences of people in their times and societies. There is a big phrase for this space, and it's called World Literature. The academy has a right to recognize this as much as dissent. ... The commitment to dissidents and the persecuted is in no way diminished."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Previously, the Nobel Prize for Literature was not awarded for art alone. In his rather ambiguous testament, Alfred Nobel said he wanted to distinguish writers who had produced 'the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.' Does this apply to Mo Yan, the Chinese writer whom the Stockholm committee has honored for his 'hallucinatory realism?'"

"On the one hand yes. … But on the other hand, Mo Yan has long since sided with the government. … The decision by the Nobel Prize committee seems far more hallucinatory that Mo Yan's realism."

"Just think: While Mo gets the most important literary prize in the world, the books of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami -- who was a favorite for the Nobel Prize in literature -- are boycotted in China. And while Mo celebrates, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association's Peace Prize will be awarded to poet Liao Yiwu, who was tortured in Chinese prisons and fled across the border in 2011. Liao's name can't be spoken in China. When it comes to an 'ideal direction,' he would have been the better winner."

The conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Choosing Mo Yan as this year's Nobel Prize winner in literature was a good decision -- both for China and the regime there. Unlike Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese writer to receive the award 12 years ago, Mo Yan doesn't live in exile. On the contrary, he not only lives in China, but he lives there in the particular role of an intellectual who criticizes the recent Chinese past in his novels, but within the limits of the permissible ideological framework. That is to say, Mo Yan identifies errors and excesses of the communist regime, but does not question them."

"With the exception of work by dissidents, Chinese literature appears highly opaque from the outside, and lacks any real placement abroad. But this particular case will change that."

--Kristen Allen

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