This year's Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan woke up Friday morning the pride of China and its Communist Party government, his face on the front page of every newspaper. And then – like one of the brash characters in his novels – he did the completely unexpected: calling for the release of jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
His statement was innocent to most ears: "I hope [Mr. Liu] can achieve his freedom as soon as possible," Mr. Mo told foreign and Chinese reporters who visited him at his home in Shandong province. But it was enough to tarnish what had been a giant propaganda victory for China's leaders.
It also heartened dissidents who, 24 hours earlier, had been harshly critical of the Nobel committee's decision to reward an author they accused of working with China's censors. Mr. Mo had been specifically attacked for not speaking out on behalf of his fellow writer, Mr. Liu.
"I'm very surprised. He has always been part of the Communist program, and on many occasions he has refused to state his mind independently. … I will feel grateful if he really did this," artist Ai Weiwei said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail. "I think it will have strong influence."
Mr. Mo – who is a Communist Party member and the vice-chairman of the official China Writers Association – was the first Nobel Prize winner of whom the Politburo approved. Now he's spoiled their moment, and arguably heightened his, by using the stage they gave him to call for the release of the pro-democracy activist who languishes in Jinzhou Prison in northeastern Liaoning province.
Mr. Mo's literature win on Thursday was the end of a long drought for the People's Republic, which had never seen one of its citizens win a Nobel Prize unless they were already in exile or in jail. State media hailed him as the "first" Chinese Nobel winner and said it was a victory for "mainstream" Chinese values, clearly meaning those taught by the Communist Party. Among the first to congratulate Mr. Mo was Li Changchun, China's powerful propaganda chief and a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo.
Asked about Mr. Mo's remarks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei only repeated Beijing's criticism of Mr. Liu, saying his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 2010, amounted to "grave meddling in China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty."
China's official media have spent the past two years attacking the Nobel prizes (the Literature and Peace prizes are chosen by separate bodies) after Mr. Liu, a former professor and human-rights activist who has been at odds with the state since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was awarded the 2010 Peace Prize. Mr. Liu has eight years remaining on an 11-year sentence; his wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since Mr. Liu won the award.
Mr. Mo's comments calling for the dissident's release were not reported in official Chinese media, but posts referring to what he said also weren't immediately deleted from China's heavily censored Internet.
Mo Yan is actually a pen name – it means "Don't Speak" – for Guan Moye, a farmer's son who began writing while he was a soldier in the People's Liberation Army. Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, said Thursday that while Mr. Mo was not a political dissident, "I would say he is more a critic of the system, sitting within the system."
Mr. Mo portrayed himself much the same way at his press conference on Friday. He said Mr. Liu should be allowed to continue his research into China's "politics and social system," while also defending his ties to the Communist Party.
"Some say that because I have a close relationship with the Communist Party, I shouldn't have won the prize. I think this is unconvincing," he said. "I believe that the people who have criticized me have not read my books. … If they had read my books they would understand that my writings at that time took on a great deal of risk and were under pressure."
Mr. Ai, who lives under constant surveillance and spent 81 days in prison last year because of his outspoken criticism of the Communist Party, initially called Mr. Mo's win an "insult to humanity and to literature." He was more generous on Friday. "I hope I'm wrong about him."
Mr. Mo's most famous works are unflinching in describing the hardships that China's people endured during the first decades of Communist rule, and mock the absurdities of the system Mao Zedong created. However, he has avoided direct criticism of China's current rulers, as well as sensitive topics like the thwarted Tiananmen Square uprising.
On of the characters in his most recent novel, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, is a fictional Mo Yan – a writer who no one around him knows quite how much to trust. In a passage China's censors may be rereading today, even the narrator complains about him: "I'm sorry to say, Mo Yan's fiction has a way of wriggling in through the cracks and taking my tale to places it shouldn't go."