CNHI News Service

Opinion

December 10, 2012

COLUMN: Should Nobel winners live up to awards' ideals?

— If there’s one place you’d expect to find support for free expression, it would be among Nobel Prize recipients.

The people who win these awards almost have to be the sort who think big and manage to do so outside the box.

Earning these top awards for chemistry, economics and other areas of human endeavors requires exceptional effort and the ability to examine issues free of outside control.

But I suppose there is an exception to every rule. And one of these is Mo Yan, this year’s recipient of the Nobel in literature.

If you’ve never heard of Mo, that’s not surprising. His work, while widely respected, doesn’t always translate well. And let’s face it: American readers aren’t exactly an adventurous lot.

But the literature prize typically goes to a writer who has proved himself or herself with a body of work. Mo indeed has a lengthy track record in this regard.

Yet Mo’s receipt of the literature prize was a controversial decision, not necessarily because of his writing talents, but rather, because of his beliefs. Appearing in Stockholm last week to accept his award, Mo defended the practice of censorship, something the Chinese government performs with regularity.

In justifying censorship, Mo compared it to airport security checks, unpopular but necessary. However, in comments translated by an interpreter, Mo indicated that censorship should be employed with care, noting, “I also hope that censorship, per se, should have the highest principle."

If those who engage in censorship indeed had principles, Mo might have a point. But the reality is that the power to censor inevitably leads to abuse. The Chinese government, for example, routinely restricts critical comments made about its activities. That’s not principled; that’s a silencing of dissent.

And on that subject, Mo also failed a crucial test for a free thinker. He pointedly refused to support an appeal, signed by 134 other Nobel laureates, calling for his government to release Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. A literary critic and human rights activist, Liu had the audacity to call for an end to single-party rule in China.

Arrested in 2008 on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence in China. Is that principled censorship?

When asked about Liu amid calls for his release, Mo tried to duck the issue, saying he had previously expressed the hope that Liu would be released soon. It’s hardly the dramatic stance one would expect from a supposed literary lion.

In his native country, Mo is known for enjoying close relations with the Chinese government. Hence his defense of its actions. Of course, the political winds inevitably change, and one day Mo may find it is his work that’s begin censored.

Under those circumstances, will he be so charitable to the powers that be?

---

Mitchel Olszak is a columnist for the New Castle (Pa.) News.

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