China’s Nobel Winners, Past and Possible

With the announcement this week of the 2012 Nobel Prizes, the BBC’s Damian Grammaticas revisits the situation of imprisoned 2010 Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia. Liu Xia remains under strict house arrest intended, according to an anonymous friend of the family, to put pressure on her husband:

“The government is trying to force Liu Xiaobo to leave China by taking his wife’s personal freedom away. At the same time, the government threatens both their families, saying if they try to speak to the media or leak any information their right to visit Liu Xiaobo will be taken away.

“This is very cruel. It has forced the family to keep quiet.”

But, the family friend added, Liu Xiaobo will not agree to leave China, despite the fact that his prison term lasts until 2020.

“The government has always wanted Liu Xiaobo to leave China because the fact that a Nobel Peace Prize winner is in jail, is a constant reminder of China’s poor human rights situation.

“When previous dissidents have left China their voices gradually fade and their influence disappears. That’s why Liu Xiaobo insists he’ll stay even if it means staying in jail. Remaining in China is what’s significant for him.”

In a May 4th New York Times op-ed addressed to Chen Guangcheng, Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan argued that the neutralising effect of exile had been greatly reduced by the Internet. “In my own experience,” he wrote, “being an exile has only helped.” Soon afterwards, however, he co-signed an open letter to the Chinese government asking to be allowed to visit his parents and complaining that being unable to return amounted to “another continuous punishment”.

Human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig told the BBC that, in her extra-legal detention, “Liu Xia effectively ceases to exist, both as a human being and as an issue”. He later added on his blog that “this effort to render Liu Xiaobo completely irrelevant will ultimately fail, because Liu’s value rests in his ideas and, no matter how hard they try, they cannot imprison those ideas, which can continue to have influence even while he remains behind bars.”

Meanwhile, the rumoured nomination of China’s Mo Yan for the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature has sparked vigorous opposition from some Chinese. From Offbeat China:

His works aside, many netizens don’t think Mo Yan is a Nobel Prize-worthy person. A Weibo post by 滕_彪 summarized Mo Yan’s “sins”: “He was one of the writers who copied Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art by hand [The talk was given by Mao in 1942 which laid out the approval style of art and literature in China, one that has no darkness and showed only the bright side of society.] He once said that there were no restrictions or censorship on novelists in China. At Frankfurt Book Fair, he refused to sit in the same seminar with [dissident Chinese authors] Dai Qing and Bei Ling. When he was asked about opinions on Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year sentence, he said he didn’t know much about it and had nothing to say. He has never said a single word against ‘a China heart’…”

For many netizens, this Mo Yan with “a China heart” [a heart bent its knee to the CCP’s suppression] is a writer without any heart. Netizen 宝庆佬 commented: “The moment when Mo Yan started to copy Mao’s Yan’an Talks by hand, the writer in him died.”

Writer Liu Di commented on Twitter (translated by John Kennedy at South China Morning Post):

It’ll be fun if he does win, let’s just see if he dares go to receive it, and if he dares in his acceptance speech to say he’s the first Chinese to win a Nobel prize. We’ll have to see how he reacts when people ask him about Liu Xiaobo…

(Liu was not the first either: Gao Xingjian won the prize for Literature in 2000, but had already become a French citizen, having lived there since 1987. Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang won the 1957 prize for Physics, but both had been based in the United States for several years, and subsequently acquired citizenship.)

Global Times reports that further angst in China has arisen from the award of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to Kyoto University’s Shinya Yamanaka, together with Britain’s John Gurdon. Yamanaka received the award for developing a technique to (from New Scientist) “transform adult skin cells into cells akin to human embryonic stem cells. The method, which involves inserting genetic material that makes the cells’ development run backwards, opens the door to stem cells specific to patients, which could be used to repair damaged organs or fight diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes – crucially, all without the need to destroy human embryos.” From Global Times:

The result sparked heated debate among Chinese Internet users. After congratulating the winners, many netizens could not help but ask the question that has been repeated many times – why has China failed to nurture a Nobel laureate in science or technology after so many years?

Some felt the award came at an awkward time as tensions between China and Japan have escalated over the Diaoyu Islands in the past few months.

[…] “China has made rapid progress in technology. But it still lags behind Japan in science research and higher education,” Fang Zhouzi, a famous whistleblower on academic fraud dubbed the “science cop,” told the Global Times on Monday.

In the domain of science, the Nobel Prize has frequently been awarded to people in Europe, US and Japan, because they are strong in these fields, Fang said.

“I wouldn’t expect to see any Nobel Prize winner in science in China for the next 10 plus years,” Fang said, “If a batch of Nobel Prize winners in science turns up in our country, we could say China has made great achievements in science.”

The sting of Yamanaka’s victory may be compounded on Thursday. While Mo Yan is favourite to win the Literature prize according to Swedish betting site Unibet, Britain’s Ladbrokes tipped Japan’s Haruki Murakami to take the award. Murakami recently condemned nationalists on both sides of the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute in an essay in the Asahi Shimbun (translated in full by Rocket News 24′s Philip Kendall). A Monday Global Times op-ed by Yu Jincui urged Chinese not to get their hopes up:

Success in establishing itself as an authority through the scientific field of the Nobel Prize has also granted non-scientific prizes with international recognition.

Take the literature prize: the Chinese have long hoped that a Chinese author could win that award. However, a notable fact is that non-scientific Nobel prizes, especially the peace prize, have been increasingly tainted with politics in recent years. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo, and also to US President Barack Obama in 2009, are all examples that were very controversial in the world.

[…] As the other Chinese winners [Liu Xiaobo, the Dalai Lama, Gao Xingjian] have demonstrated, mainstream Chinese values are hardly compatible with the choices of the Nobel Prize committee.

Mo is quite calm in the face of the heated discussions about his being a possible winner, and so are many other Chinese authors toward the Nobel literature prize. It would be gratifying if Mo wins the prize, but if he fails, it’s nothing serious. Toward Nobel prizes, Chinese need more calmness.