By Alex Mutter and Edward Nawotka
Just a few weeks after China’s Mo Yan was announced as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, lauded by the Nobel jury for writing that offers “hallucinatory realism [that] merges folk tales, history and the contemporary,” the 2009 winner, Herta Müller, called the win a “catastrophe” and a “slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights.”
“[Mo Yan] celebrates censorship,” Müller told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “It’s extremely upsetting.”
Müller, who is 59 years old and Romanian-born, had much of her work censored by Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime and was reportedly persecuted by Romania’s secret police for refusing to cooperate with them.
“The Chinese themselves say that Mo Yan is an official of the same rung as a (government) minister,” said Mueller.
Müller went on to criticize Mo for hand-copying a Mao Zedong speech, in which the deceased ruler stated that all art and culture should serve the Communist government, and for doing little to help the plight of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Although Mo told the press shortly after winning the prize that he hoped to see Liu’s imprisonment end “as soon as possible,” the sentiment was too little, too late for Müller.
“He should have said that four years ago, or at least two weeks before receiving the prize,” said Mueller.
Mo is closely associated to China’s Communist Party — he is the Vice President of the party-sponsored writers’ association. He first defended state censorship during a news conference in Sweden on receiving his prize and has again done it this past week, likening government censorship to airport security checks. Mo also said that while censorship should not “stand in the way of truth,” defamation and rumors “should be censored.”
Mo has also remained evasive regarding Liu Xiaobo, telling reporters: “on the same evening of my winning the prize, I already expressed my opinion, and you can get online to make a search.”
However, Mo has implied that he had no intention of signing a petition, which has already been signed by over 100 Nobel laureates, calling for Liu’s release.
“I have always been independent. I like it that way. When someone forces me to do something I don’t do it,” Mo stated.
The assertion of independence may be a bit perplexing coming from someone with such close ties to China’s ruling party, but nevertheless, Mo seems content to not become more involved in Liu’s plight.
Being passive in the face of censorship is one thing, but actively defending it from the bully pulpit of a Nobel Prize is another altogether.
Censorship appears to be simply indefensible, but like many things between East and West, there may be a disconnect. The Chinese themselves prevaricate on the issue, sometimes tolerating dissent so long as it stays on the fringes and does not disturb the masses. When it comes to book publishing in China, the government controls access to ISBNs, printing, distribution…the entire publishing production chain. Independent publishing may be nascent, but it is hardly robust or much of an alternative. Most Chinese authors who wish to publicly criticize the country simply leave (if they can), which in turn opens them up to criticism that they have lost touch about the country and have no authority on which to comment about it. Those who stay, like Mo Yan, make compromises.
Publicly, the Chinese Communist Party says censorship is necessary to govern a sprawling nation. But what goes unsaid is that censorship is also a hammer, one which enables them to beat down opposition and sustain power. After all, knowledge is power and if you control the means of access to knowledge, you control the power. Plain and simple.