The Chinese government’s response to its past two Nobel laureates could not have been any more different. The 2010 Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo remains under arrest; China has rebuffed an appeal by 134 Nobel laureates for him to be freed, reiterating that it considers him a “convicted criminal”. However, it has celebrated this year’s Literature laureate, Mo Yan, saying that his win represents a “new starting point”. Mo Yan himself has been uncomfortable answering questions about Liu, and did not sign the appeal for his release.
Literary merit aside, the Nobel committee has performed a clever experiment by awarding the prize to a writer with close connections to the state and establishment (Mo is vice-president of the state-sanctioned writers’ association). When Liu was awarded his prize, the Chinese government saw it as foreign interference in their internal affairs, and portrayed it to their own citizens as an affront to national pride and sovereignty. They gave Norwegian diplomats the cold shoulder, and said that the prize itself had been “debased”. Mo Yan’s win, on the other hand, was fully embraced and feted as legitimation of China’s rightful place on the world stage, with all the bitter claims of “interference” from 2010 forgotten. One could have predicted that this would happen, but the Nobel committee, whether it intended to or not, has done us a service by showing the two-facedness of the Chinese state. The state’s publicity apparatus does not seem to show any shame in how its own rhetoric contradicts itself. Even if dissident commentary is censored within China, this gambit has brought the official voice into self-contradiction. Even someone sympathetic to the state’s point of view might see that this discredits its own position.
A look at the headlines in the People’s Daily relating to Mo Yan’s win is also telling. Aside from speculation about his wardrobe in Stockholm, articles have also been posted in the past few days about unscrupulous profiteering by businesses from Mo Yan’s name (a man sells the Mo Yan liquor trademark for millions, after having registered it years ago), officials seeking a ride on his bandwagon (Mo Yan’s hometown building a museum to attract tourists), and an article about how Mo Yan himself is “not a rich man”. The message seems to be this: Mo Yan is a writer, an artist with no thought of monetary gain, but look at all these avaricious people trying to make a quick buck off his name! Mo is blameless, we should emulate him, the world is watching, so be on your best behavior. By stressing his personal virtue, the state can also provide at least some sort of response to criticism from the West about his unwillingness to protest Liu Xiaobo’s incarceration: This man supports the government’s stance, but he isn’t a corrupt official nor is he getting rich from his views; can’t you in the West see, that ordinary Chinese people like him are supportive of the Chinese state and do consider Liu to be a seditious traitor?