Monday, October 15, 2012

A Tale of Two Nobel Prizes in China

Two Nobel Prizes, awarded to China's citizens two years apart, provoked such diametrically opposed reactions that it would not have been out of place in one of Mo Yan's sardonic novels.

Fact, indeed, can at times be stranger than fiction.

While the Chinese author's Nobel Literature Prize win on Thursday was greeted with elation and an outpouring of official praise, the response when jailed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 was pure fury.

Liu had just started serving an 11-year jail sentence handed down in December 2009 after he was convicted of state subversion for calling for reforms to China's one-party system.

The Chinese government slammed the award, decided by a Norwegian Nobel committee, as a plot by Western enemy forces, headed by the United States, to undermine China.

State media in Beijing called it a blasphemy and an obscenity. A government spokesman even labelled the Nobel committee members "clowns."

"I would like to say to those in the Nobel committee (that) they are orchestrating an anti-China farce by themselves," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said at the time.

"We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns and we will not change our path."

Beijing called off free trade negotiations with Norway and delayed shipment of Norwegian salmon. It also arm-twisted some countries to boycott the award ceremony in Oslo. Only the likes of Russia, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Vietnam and Iraq obliged.

During the event, China blacked out foreign TV channels, blocked global news websites and deleted any mention of Liu online.

The Straits Times said in an editorial at the time: "It was a polemical overkill that could make its friends and economic partners wonder whether a revived great power ought not to be showing a surer touch.

"If China is as indispensable to the world as it believes it is, it would have treated the Norwegian decision with lordly contempt. It had only to ignore it.

"That is what a great nation confident of itself would have done. Using its clout to bully beholden governments into staying away from the award ceremony in Oslo was bizarre."

Now, two years later, the Chinese government has done a somersault.

No longer a farce or conspiratorial plot, the Nobel Prize is now a "landmark recognition" of contemporary Chinese literature, as the state Xinhua news agency put it in a commentary on Friday.

The win dominated Chinese newspaper headlines, with the popular and nationalistic Global Times saying on its front page that it created a "sensation" in China. It called the prize a "historic win" in its English edition.

When Liu won in 2010, the same paper said the award was an expression of prejudice towards China. "Behind it lies an extraordinary terror of China's rise and the Chinese model," it said then.

But the same model, which China calls "reform and opening up," is now affirmed by the Nobel for Mo.

The Xinhua commentary said: "Mo's success can also be seen as a sign that China is getting recognition from the rest of the world not just for its literature, but more broadly.

"The country's opening up has provided ample room for Chinese literature to flourish since the 1980s... Without China's opening up and reform policy, his ilk would not have flourished."

Top leaders also joined in the celebration. Li Changchun, who is ranked No. 5 in the Communist Party hierarchy, congratulated Mo. The win "reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing influence of China," he said.

The contrasting reactions seem to make a mockery of the government. Sure, governments flip-flop all the time.

For the cynics, inconsistency could well be the DNA of politics. Allies today, enemies tomorrow?

The Philippines, which agreed to boycott the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony, has now been bickering with China for months over a cluster of isles in the South China Sea.

But China, by tying itself in knots over the Nobel Prize and overreacting when it was first awarded to a dissident, has raised flip-flopping to a new level.

Its behavior has to do with the Chinese government's tendency to look at almost every act — no matter how small — by a foreign entity as either a wholesale affirmation or condemnation of China, its values, cultures, systems, people and even civilization.

A long-running joke among China watchers is that when a foreign body does something that upsets Beijing, the standard response is that it has "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

Such hypersensitivity is unnecessary. The feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people can't be that brittle.

Not everything needs to be a signpost of the nation's greatness or lack thereof. China must know it is made of sterner stuff.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times

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