It’s exceedingly rare for the bureaucrats who hand out the cultural Nobel Prizes to get it right. Two years ago they did, awarding the peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident who’s been imprisoned in China since 2009 for urging direct elections and freedom of assembly.
They’ve made up for it this year, giving a Chinese writer of a very different sort the Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection might help sales of Scandinavian salmon—one of the exports to suffer the wrath of Chinese officials over the award Liu couldn’t collect—but does nothing for the Nobel’s credibility.
Mo Yan’s civic attitude is captured in his name: The pseudonym of 57-year-old Guan Moye means “don’t speak.” He explained to Humanities magazine last year: “[M]y father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and I did not speak.”
His selective silence has served him well. Chinese officials honored Mo long before the Nobel committee did, though the prize sent them into ecstasies. “Mo Yan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature! This is the first Chinese writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chinese writers have waited too long, the Chinese people have waited too long,” said People’s Daily, the Communist party organ. In fact, Goa Xingjian, exiled to France, won the 2000 literature prize.
Nonofficial China felt very differently. “Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature,” declared visual artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. “You can never separate literature and struggle from today’s current political situation. China is a state with no freedom of expression.” Writer Mo Zhixu said that Mo Yan “doesn’t have any independent personality.”
Mo Yan is not just a card-carrying party member. He’s vice chairman of the government’s Chinese Writers’ Association. Just last year, he contributed to a book celebrating the 70th anniversary of a speech Mao Zedong gave carefully delineating the subjects artists could treat. He’s defended his masters in the international press, telling Time in 2010, “There are certain restrictions on writing in every country.”
The criticism from colleagues—or is it betters?—seems to have gotten to Mo Yan. He finally mentioned the jailed Liu, telling (state-run news) reporters, “I hope he can achieve his freedom as soon as possible.” Strange wording. But Liu has already achieved more than the Gabriel García Márquez-knockoff Mo is ever likely to.