Why We Should Criticize Mo Yan

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Perry Link weighs in over at the NYRB blog:

[T]here is another problem with the arguments made by Mo Yan’s defenders, and that is what the Chinese call xifangzhongxinzhuyi. This phrase does not translate easily, so please pardon my awkward rendering as “West-centrism.” The late Chinese physicist and human rights advocate Fang Lizhi was good at pointing out double standards in Western attitudes. When Communist dictatorships fell in Europe, the Cold War was declared “over.” But what about China, North Korea, and Vietnam? If the reverse had happened—if dictatorships had fallen in Asia but persisted in Europe—would Washington and London still have hailed the end of the Cold War? What if Solzhenitsyn, instead of exposing the gulag, had cracked jokes about it? Would we have credited him with “art” on grounds that his intended audience knew all about the gulag and appreciates the black humor? Or might it be, sadly, that only non-whites can win Nobel Prizes writing in this mode?

Pankaj Mishra, in an essay in The Guardian called “Why Salman Rushdie Should Pause before Condemning Mo Yan on Censorship,” acknowledges that Mo Yan has offered deplorable support to China’s rulers. But the main point of Mishra’s essay is that Western writers have also been the handmaidens of powers that oppress people in distant places. He asks, therefore, that people like Rushdie (and me, whom he also mentions) “pause.” I admire some of Mishra’s penetrating observations, for example that “Jane Austen’s elegantly self-enclosed world” depended on unseen “hellish slavery plantations” in the Caribbean. But why does any of this mean that I should “pause” before criticizing Beijing or its acolytes?

Must Salman Rushdie hold his tongue about Beijing until London is squeaky clean? My guess is that Pankaj Mishra, if you could shake him by the shoulders, would say (as I would) that any citizen of any country should be free to criticize any government anywhere that oppresses anyone. But his article does not leave that impression.

Authoritarians in China and elsewhere regularly take the position that foreigners should keep criticisms to themselves; the reasons for their position are obvious. The reasons that Western liberals often take the same position are far less obvious but well worth probing.

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