Mo Yan's Nobel acceptance speech draws ire from critics

Chinese writer Mo Yan's comments on censorship and his unwillingness to sign a petition for the release of Noblist Liu Xiaobo have angered some fellow writers.

Claudio Bresciani/Scanpix for Sweden/AP
Mo Yan speaks at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm this week.

The controversy over Chinese author and Nobel Prize recipient Mo Yan only appears to grow.

After being called a “patsy of the regime” by Salman Rushdie for declining to sign a petition calling for the release of fellow Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and reiterating his view that some censorship is necessary, Mo Yan accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in a Stockholm ceremony Monday evening that left some in the literary community reeling.

“I want to take this opportunity to express my admiration for the members of the Swedish Academy, who stick firm to their own convictions,” Mo Yan said on accepting his prize. “I am confident that you will not let yourselves be affected by anything other than literature.”

Late last week, Rushdie called Mo Yan a “patsy” and expressed frustration that he would not support fellow writers and activists in calling for the release of 2010 Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, a democracy activist who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for co-authoring a manifesto calling for the end of China’s single-party rule and the initiation of democratic reforms.

“This is really too bad,” Rushdie wrote on Facebook, according to Salon. “He defends censorship and won’t sign the petition asking for the freedom of his fellow Noblist Liu Xiaobo. Hard to avoid the conclusion that Mo Yan is the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet Russian apparatchik writer Mikhail Sholokhov: a patsy of the regime.” 

More than 130 other Nobel laureates have signed the petition. When asked why he hadn’t signed it, Mo Yan said, “I have always been independent. I like it that way. When someone forces me to do something I don’t do it.”

Mo Yan further angered critics when he reiterated his defense of censorship in a press conference ahead of his Nobel ceremony.

According to press reports, Mo Yan compared censorship to the airport security checks he passed through on his way to Sweden.

“When I was taking my flight, going through the customs... they also wanted to check me even taking off my belt and shoes. But I think these checks are necessary.”

He also said that censorship should not stand in the way of truth, but that defamation and rumors “should be censored.”

“But I also hope that censorship, per se, should have the highest principle,” he added, in Chinese comments translated into English.

Even before he was named this year’s Nobel Prize recipient, Mo Yan has been criticized by human rights activists for not defending freedom of speech more aggressively and for supporting the Communist Party-backed writers’ association, of which he is vice president.

According to the UK’s Guardian, Mo Yan acknowledged that the Nobel Committee’s selection “has led to controversy.”

“At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I've come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me,” he said. “…For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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