It is a preposterous twist of Kafkaesque proportions that the 2012 Nobel Prize winner in literature has endorsed censorship as a necessary evil. The Chinese winner, Mo Yan, who made the pronouncement in Stockholm on Thursday, has tarnished the prize and insulted writers everywhere who are risking their lives to tell truth to power.
In retrospect, Mr. Mo’s selection was always going to be fraught. Some condemned it from the start, saying the author was too close to the government apparatus of his country. He is a member of the Communist Party and vice-president of a party-approved writers’ association. As well, he is well known for being among a select group of Chinese authors chosen to write out, in their own hand, excerpts from Mao Zedong’s (in)famous speech on the responsibilities of artists under communism for a commemorative book.
Still, this is an award for writing. Mr. Mo is a worthy winner on that score. And there is something courageous about the selection committee choosing an author whose politics were always going to displease some people. Writers must be free to believe what they want and to live as they will.
But then Mr. Mo told reporters in Stockholm, where he will receive his prize on Monday, that government censorship is a necessary evil along the lines of security checks at airports. Only a person completely blinded to the evil of China’s inexhaustible appetite for censorship would simplistically compare it to a system that ensures the safety of airline passengers. Mr. Mo confirmed the worst fears of his critics, something he exacerbated at the same press conference when he said he would not add his name to an international petition calling for the release of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and is being held in a Chinese prison for the crime of criticizing his government.
Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about censorship, once said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” It is not a requirement of every writer that he be an outspoken defender of free speech, but it behooves him to vociferously oppose censorship, especially when accepting a prize previously won by Sinclair Lewis, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pearl Buck and others who bravely challenged the conventions of their times. Mo Yan’s name on the list of winners is destined to always have an ugly asterisk beside it.