Has Nobel Prize Made Peace with China?


The Nobel Prize for Literature to Chinese writer Mo Yan (a pseudonym for Guan Moye) appears in the eyes of the Swedish foundation a greatly deserved tribute. The prize’s website notes in its bio of Mo:

Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition. In addition to his novels, Mo Yan has published many short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors.

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Mo Yan

But Mo’s worthiness, while lauded by Chinese state media, has come under question in China by some of the literati and press. The day before the prize announcement, China Daily said:

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Speculations have been running thicker than the holiday traffic in China about the possibility of a Chinese writer nabbing the upcoming Nobel Prize for Literature. No, these aren’t about the likelihood of Mo Yan winning the prestigious honor – that’s being taken care of by professional betting houses – but, rather, they’re about the worthiness of bestowing the honor on him.

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The Chinese news site SINA‘s headline stated, “Does Mo Yan deserve a Nobel nod?”

China Daily notes, “…a distinct voice emerging from 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.”

The paper quotes the sarcastic swipe by writer Li Yong, who uses the pen name Shinian Kanchai: “It would be a perfect world if the winner of the Mao Dun Literary Award and a government award also end up with the Nobel.”

The writer Yefu predicted flatly before the prize announcement, “The Nobel will not go to a writer who sings the praise of authoritarianism. That is an essential principle.”

The paper notes Mo received “an avalanche of censure” from dissident writers when he copied “a Mao Zedong speech given 70 years ago that largely set the parameters for China’s arts and literature in the ensuing decades. Mo was one of 100 writers and artists who hand-copied paragraphs from the long speech, published in a commemorative book.” To liberal circles, with that action Mo had burrowed in as a puppet of the state.

Meanwhile, SINA overviews the prize through China’s eyes:

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Many Chinese view the Nobel Prize as a recognition of China’s rising power and status on the international stage, but to their dismay, the Nobel Prize brought more “shame” than “glory” to the country. Nobel Prizes in sciences aren’t really relevant for China for now. Nobel Peace Prize has been tainted with a political layer and converted into something of an “anti-China” prize.

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That could hold the key to how Mo pushed past the oddsmakers and carried the Nobel committee’s approval. The organization saw a harsh Chinese backlash in 2010 when it awarded the Nobel.

The Washington Post explains how the country’s communist leaders “disowned the Nobel when Gao Xingjian won the literature award in 2000 for his absurdist dramas and inventive fiction. Gao’s works are laced with criticisms of China’s communist government and have been banned in China.”

Then, when jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, the Huffington Post reported, “dozens of people who openly agreed with his views say they have been detained, roughed up, harassed or kept from leaving their homes.”

That same year, in fact that same week, Bloomberg revealed that the Nobel Foundation had begun hedging against currency fluctuation risks. “Last year, the 3 billion-krona ($448 million) foundation switched to a policy that calls for offsetting risk in all its foreign bonds and half its hedge fund investments to help protect the Nobel’s future,” the news agency said.

While the foundation has only a small percentage of its financial portfolio in Chinese investments, its money managers have seen China, despite current fiscal struggles there and worldwide, flex its financial muscles. And China’s powerful place in the global economy could perhaps affect the Nobel Foundation’s award decisions.

No doubt, Nobel authorities have also seen over the last couple of years broad coverage given to China’s repression of artist Ai Weiwei, including his 2011 arrest.

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Too, international relations have been ruffled recently by China and other countries contesting rights to fish and mine in the South China Sea.

All these circumstances-ranging from Chinese authoritarian repression resulting from Nobel awards to the global fiscal strains placed on everybody-may have eased the Nobel’s decision to honor Mo’s many accomplishments over those of other deserving literary talents, and to offer what it sees as a calming international voice with its award during a turbulent time.