In China, Nobel winner and writer Mo Yan accused of lacking patriotism

Mo Yan. Image by Bengt Nyman via Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

This post was written by Alex Colville and originally published in the China Media Project on March 11, 2024. An edited version is published below as part of a content partnership agreement with the China Media Project.

A spat about the patriotism of one of China’s most celebrated writers has been blown out of proportion on the Chinese internet, thanks to harsher nationalist laws and an increasingly rabid cancel culture.

At the center of the controversy is a hardline 2018 law on the protection of heroes and martyrs. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Mo Yan (莫言) has irked extreme nationalist bloggers on the internet, one of whom, writing under the account name “Mao Xinghuo Who Speaks the Truth” (说真话的毛星火), filed a court order late last month to remove Mo Yan’s books from circulation and force him to pay RMB 1.5 billion (over USD 208 million) in damages to the Chinese people and “stop infringing on heroes and martyrs” in his fiction.

The blogger’s four-page indictment, submitted to the Beijing Procuratorate, meticulously lists Mo Yan’s supposed offences, including portraying members of the Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War as sexually abusive, “beautifying” Japanese soldiers, insulting Mao Zedong, and saying that the Chinese people have “no truth and no common sense.”

A Weibo post from “Mao Xinghuo Who Speaks the Truth” details the bloggers accusations against writer Mo Yan.

“Such words and deeds have greatly hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” Mao Xinghuo solemnly claims. “As an upright and patriotic young man, I feel very angry. How does the country allow such behaviour to exist?” The blogger has been trying to bring a case against Mo Yan for months, and has asked publishers not to work with him. Fellow nationalist bloggers rallied to the cause, pointing to the more sexually explicit parts of his oeuvre as pornographic.

The incident shows how the active efforts of China’s leadership in recent years to enforce nationalist sentiment around the sanitized history of the Party can backfire and turn on cultural figures who are seen as a source of national pride.

Son of China

Since his Nobel win, Mo Yan has frequently been lauded and upheld by the government and the party-state media as a sign of China’s rising prestige in the world. Upon receiving news of the win in late 2012, Li Changchun (李长春), the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ideology, sent a letter of congratulation to the semi-official China Writers Association hailing the news and calling it “a manifestation of the steady rise of our country’s comprehensive national power and international influence.”

The prize immediately transformed Mo’s life and legacy into a public resource for national pride, to the extent that one local official in the author’s hometown reportedly told Mo’s father: “Mo Yan is no longer your son, and the house is no longer your house.”

Mao Xinghuo’s attack on Mo Yan is not the first time the author has been criticized for his work. But as one commentator with the username “Princess Minmin” (敏敏郡主) noted on WeChat, this time felt like a “large-scale siege” by a younger generation of internet trolls. An informal poll on Weibo asking netizens if Mo Yan should be criminally prosecuted received over 8,000 affirmative votes.

The use of the country’s law on the protection of heroes and martyrs, introduced five years after his Nobel win, also adds a new twist.

Red Hokum

Mo is just the latest creative threatened with legal action by Chinese citizens for supposedly insulting the nation’s martyrs. In 2013, historian Hong Zhenkuai was ordered by a Beijing court to issue a public apology for his factual deconstruction of the apocryphal story of the “Five Heroes of Langya Mountain” — a ripping yarn about five soldiers holding out against the might of the Japanese army in 1941 to buy their retreating comrades time, before hurling themselves to their deaths. The case was brought against Hong by the sons of two of the five men, lauded as communist heroes.

Such cases are now easier for citizens to bring to court. The Mao Xinghuo blogger seeks to prosecute Mo under the 2018 Protection of Heroes and Martyrs Law (英雄烈士保护法), urged for by the descendants of the Langya Mountain braves. There is also an amendment added to China’s Criminal Law in 2021 stating that “whoever insults, slanders or otherwise infringes upon the reputation and honour of heroes and martyrs” can be imprisoned for up to three years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly urged the nation to fight “historical nihilism” (历史虚无主义), a catchall euphemism for any interpretation of the past that runs counter to the patriotic, CCP-approved version of events. Xi believes that the West is trying to use “historical nihilism” to undermine faith in the founding myths that underpin Chinese Communist Party rule, and has argued it contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Since 2021, these two laws have led to the arrest of a number of people, including a former investigative reporter for Economic Observer (经济观察报) who challenged the Chinese casualty numbers in a border skirmish with India earlier that year and a former deputy editor for the finance and current affairs magazine Caijing (财经杂志) who commented on WeChat that few Chinese today have ever questioned the official justifications for China’s intervention in the Korean War.

But these laws also make it more likely for any acts framed as protecting Chinese “heroes” to receive serious attention, regardless of merit. In Mo Yan’s case, his accuser claims the court has not accepted his indictment against Mo Yan because he does not have the author’s address.

But there also seem to be serious problems with Mao’s grasp of the facts. On page three of his indictment, for example, he lists comments made by the Chairman of the Nobel Prize Literature Committee in 2012 when introducing Mo Yan, such as that the Chinese live in a “pigsty,” as something that Mo Yan should somehow be punished for. He neglects to mention Mo Yan’s own speeches were patriotic in tone — in his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, Mo Yan claimed that if it weren’t for China’s “tremendous” development since reform and opening up, “I would not be a writer today.”

The case against Mo Yan might have languished in relative obscurity if not for former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进), who brought the case against Mo Yan to the attention of his 24 million followers by defending Mo. Mao Xinghuo successfully goaded Hu into a spat on the meaning of patriotism and threatened to sue Hu as well. Hu has since posted a recording of Mo Yan at a public forum in 2013 praising Mao Zedong’s achievements and writing style — saying that “so-called ‘public intellectuals’” who criticize the former leader’s work are “ridiculous.”

That a Weibo celebrity like Hu Xijin felt it necessary to engage with a hitherto obscure blogger with just 219,000 followers could show a level of panic, as some netizens noted in comments under Hu’s posts. There are distinct echoes of the systems that underpinned the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution in this tale of a grassroots fanatic adopting the messaging of the central Party leadership to punish prominent intellectuals for their past work. In 1966, not even prominent writer Guo Moruo, President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and author of toe-curling sycophantic odes to Mao, was safe from accusations over his pre-Communist “bourgeois” work. Hu was standing up not just for Mo Yan, but all Chinese public intellectuals.

A post from law professor Lao Dongyan on March 7 criticizes “an anti-intellectual culture” in China.

This blogger seems not to have been taken seriously or to have gained a large following. But by making it easier to prosecute for slandering heroes and martyrs, China’s leadership has made witch-hunts against anyone who has discussed them more likely — even against one of their own.

For some, attacks against cultural figures like Mo Yan are a sign of the spread of intolerant anti-intellectualism in China. Responding last week to what some have called “the Mao Xinghuo phenomenon” (毛星火现象), Lao Dongyan (劳东燕), a professor at Tsinghua University School of Law, called such attacks “ignorant,” saying they showed that “an anti-intellectual culture has spread, reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge.”

Given China’s own experiences with violent anti-intellectual convulsions, such as the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution, Lao might have found examples much closer to home than Cambodia’s radical communist movement. But this is now very much beside the point — the professor’s post has already been deleted.

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