Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- In the fall of 2010, a Chinese friend and I met for dinner a few days after the dissident Liu Xiaobo became China’s first citizen to win a Nobel Prize.
It was a touchy subject: Liu’s writings had landed him in jail, and the peace prize only seemed to re-enforce the authorities’ determination to keep him there. My friend, a Chinese who teaches at a small college, didn’t have much of an opinion on Liu, his writings or his political plight. But as the boozy evening wore on, it became clear that he did have an opinion about Nobel Prizes. “All we need is one Nobel Prize,” he told me directly. “Just one!”
It was a memorable sentiment coming after China’s first Nobel, and not an uncommon one. After all, regardless of what my friend and other Chinese thought of Liu and his reasons for winning the peace prize, it wasn’t an award in which most Chinese could take national pride. Liu Xiaobo, after all, is a harsh critic of the Chinese political system, and the Nobel Committee’s award was an explicit recognition of the rightness of that critique.
For my friend and his likeminded citizens, the “one Nobel Prize” for which they hungered would be the exact opposite of Liu’s: a nonpolitical recognition that China’s contribution to the world isn’t just exported goods, but rather ideas, culture and “soft power” influence. Correct or not, a Nobel in science or literature would be viewed as an affirmation of international respect and status.
Rumors that the Chinese author Mo Yan was in the running to win the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature began to circulate in China late last week, and intensified over the weekend. It wasn’t the first year his name was floated, and in hope of preventing a repeat of previous year’s disappointments, Chinese news media and the country’s mobs of microbloggers, went out of their way to play down the chances. But the intensity of the effort gave way the depth of the desire, and Mo’s name began trending on Chinese microblogs. When, Thursday night, it was announced that he had won, his name shot to the very top of the list of trending topics on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging service. State-run news services quickly issued lengthy, prepared stories and the Chinese Writer’s Union issued an over-the-top but entirely sincere statement claiming that Mo Yan symbolizes China’s emerging impact on the world stage.
Alas, outside of China, it will be all-too-easy to judge this second Chinese Nobel Prize in political and human rights terms only. No doubt, the contrast between how the Chinese authorities are embracing Mo Yan and how they’ve detained Liu Xiaobo is striking and disturbing. But the outpouring of national pride that Mo’s prize has inspired is both real and important, and -- at least among Chinese not involved in the upper reaches of government -- has little to do with politics. China, and its writers especially, has every right to enjoy the honor.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker.)