BEIJING -- Chinese state television hailed Mo Yan as "the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature" following the announcement Thursday of the 2012 award.
The report conveniently ignored Gao Xingjian, the Chinese-born French national whose 2000 Nobel award for literature was condemned by Beijing as anti-Chinese.
As part of its quest for soft power, Beijing has been obsessed for years about winning Nobel prizes, which in its view too often go to dissidents and emigres. Chinese authorities were especially stung by the peace prize awards to the Dalai Lama and most recently in 2010 to the dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison term for subversion of state authority.
Mo Yan probably will come under considerable pressure from the activist community to speak up on Liu’s behalf.
Over the years, Mo Yan has appeared on both sides of the Chinese political divide. His best-known book, "Red Sorghum," was initially banned in China, but in recent years he has irked fellow Chinese writers by cozying up to the Communist Party. At the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, he joined a government delegation in boycotting a seminar attended by dissident writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling.
Reaction in the dissident community was mostly hostile toward Mo Yan.
"For him to win this award, it’s not a victory for literature; it is a victory for the Communist Party," raged Yu Jie, a writer and democracy activist in a hard-hitting blog post. "A writer who praised Hiter couldn’t win this award, but a writer who praised Mao Zedong can."
Zhao Jing, a blogger and activist who writes under the name Michael Anti, said he thought the award could sway the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo. "This award will remind the Chinese that there are two Chinese Nobel winners —one who is in jail," said Zhao.
Zhang Lijia, a writer based in Beijing, shrugged off the criticism that Mo Yan was too accepting of censorship.
"Literature is literature. Somebody shouldn’t be disqualified because he isn’t sufficiently critical of the government," said Zhang, “Some of Mo Yan’s work is quite imaginative, although it could use some editing.
"They’ll say I’m unpatriotic," Zhang added, "but if I were a judge, I’d have voted for Haruki Murakami," referring to the Japanese writer who was another contender.
Despite the criticism, Mo Yan’s writing has touched on some of the most sensitive topics in China. In his 11th novel, "Frog," published in 2009, he wrote about a midwife confronting the forced sterilizations and late-term abortions demanded by the Communist Party’s one-child policy.
In a 2010 interview with Time magazine, Mo Yan spoke almost cheerfully about censorship, suggesting at one point that it made him a better writer.
“One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel," he said. "There are certain restrictions on writing in every country.”
State publishers who have long labored under criticism about censorship were thrilled by the award to a politically acceptable recipient.
"There are more than 1.3 billion people in China. Everyone has their own opinions on what kind of books one likes. So it’s hard to define what is mainstream. I think for Mo Yan to win this award, it at least shows that the Nobel committee is finally starting to pay attention to Chinese writers," said Zhao Ping of the People’s Literature Publishing House in Beijing.
Girding itself for disappointment, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times warned readers earlier this week not to expect a Nobel prize for Mo Yan.
"Main Chinese values are hardly compatible with the choices of the Nobel Prize committee," the newspaper opined under the headline, “Let’s be realistic about Nobel Prize prospects.”
-- Barbara Demick. Tommy Yang of the Times' Beijing bureau contributed.