Nobel Laureate Mo Yan Hopes for Liu Xiaobo’s Freedom

In a press conference on Friday, Nobel Literature prizewinner Mo Yan gave an unexpected expression of support for fellow laureate Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned winner of the 2010 Peace Prize. Mo’s statement has dampened fierce criticism from dissidents, raised questions about how he might use his newly magnified influence, and scattered at least a few raindrops on the official celebrations. From Andrew Jacobs at The New York Times:

“I hope he can achieve his freedom as soon as possible,” Mr. Mo, 57, told reporters during a news conference held a day after he won the 2012 prize for literature. He spoke not far from his family’s home in rural Shandong Province, the setting for many of his epic novels.

Even if Mr. Mo’s remarks were spare and decidedly nonconfrontational — he went on to suggest he was not an admirer of Mr. Liu’s pro-democracy essays — they are nonetheless likely to infuriate China’s leadership, which has been exulting in the Swedish Academy’s decision to give China its first Nobel in literature.

[…] Ran Yunfei, a sharp-tongued writer persecuted for his pro-democracy views, said he was heartened by Mr. Mo’s comments but doubted that he would become a crusader for human rights and free expression. “He has become very skilled at walking on a tightrope,” Mr. Ran wrote in a microblog post. “Now that he has become a household name with the government’s backing, it’s only going to become harder for him to be a real critic of the government.”

Other critics have also softened their tone. Activist Hu Jia said to Reuters that “what has happened in the last 24 hours has changed him. A Nobel prize, whether for peace or for literature, bestows on one a sense of wrong and right.” Outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, who had previously called Mo’s award an “insult to humanity and to literature“, told China Real Time Report that “I want to welcome Mo Yan back into the arms of the people. If this sort of courage is the result, I hope more Chinese writers will be given Nobel prizes.”

Also at China Real Time, Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin commented on Mo’s politics and his support for Liu Xiaobo:

“Mo Yan certainly has a mind of his own. He’s not a government puppet. His novels make very clear that he’s not a cheerleader for the state of Chinese society today,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. The novelist’s willingness to talk about Mr. Liu, he added, “will make it a little more difficult for China to conceal that they’re holding a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison.”

Avant-garde writer Bei Cun wrote on Sina Weibo (via South China Morning Post’s John Kennedy):

Journalists and friends have messaged me asking for my view, as I’ve expressed both congratulations as well as opposition to the hand-copying [of Mao’s speech]. What we must remember is that this is a literature award, and is limited to that profession. As I said several days ago, a writer’s political position will not inevitably affect his or her professional ability, otherwise someone such as Heidegger would be difficult to understand. Writers aren’t saints, maintaining a spiritual contradiction is allowed. I can only hope Mo Yan uses his influence to encourage people to act on conscience.

Jeffrey Brown discussed Mo’s political tightrope-walking with University of Virginia’s Charles Laughlin and China Digital Times Editor in Chief Xiao Qiang on PBS NewsHour:

For more views on the politics of Mo and his award, see David Wertime’s post at Tea Leaf Nation and Yaxue Cao’s at Seeing Red in China.

Even before the press conference, Mo’s English translator Howard Goldblatt had discussed with Reuters how the author might make use of his new prominence:

“I think Mo Yan could actually, in a very nuanced way, make a difference and get some of this stuff happening,” Goldblatt said by telephone from Boulder, Colorado, referring to improving freedom of speech and conditions for writers.

“To be honest with you, I doubt that he will. I think he’s just a novelist who doesn’t want to be involved in those things.”

[…] “You know, he respects and likes the dissidents,” said Goldblatt.

“He just doesn’t want to become one of them in exile.”

While thanking his supporters and detractors alike, Mo himself has taken on his critics directly. From Reuters:

“I believe that the people who have criticized me have not read my books,” he said. “If they had read my books they would understand that my writings at that time took on a great deal of risk and were under pressure.

“Many of the people who have criticized me online are Communist Party members themselves. They also work within the system. And some have benefited tremendously within the system,” he added.

“I am working in China,” he said. “I am writing in a China under Communist Party leaders. But my works cannot be restricted by political parties.”

While Mo’s bold statement in front of the media was uncontainable, references to Liu Xiaobo elsewhere have faced tight controls. China Media Project highlighted a weibo post by deputy director of the School of Law at China University of Political Science and Law He Bing, which was swiftly deleted, despite not mentioning Liu by name:

As Mo Yan receives his [Nobel] prize, regardless of whether it is from the perspective of domestic or international politics, we should all consider changing the fortune of another Nobel Prize winner. Our country cannot remain idiotic to the very end. Full reconciliation is the prerequisite for a stable society.

Meanwhile, Liu remains in prison, while his wife Liu Xia is under house arrest in the legal black hole where she has spent the last two years. The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini, discussing her case as a weathervane for judicial reform in China, described the Catch 22 situation imposed on visitors. “Their attempts to impose arbitrary and impossible conditions on would-be visitors rather than just forbidding them from seeing her seemed to betray a desire to somehow legitimise her detention,” he wrote.

The BBC (via CDT) reported this week that her incarceration is designed to pressure Liu Xiaobo into agreeing to leave the country, and to control the flow of information to and from the jailed laureate. Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, has published haunting video of Liu Xia smoking at her window—”one of the few freedoms she can still enjoy”.


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