. China News .

Football author turned government critic splits China
by Staff Writers
Chengdu, China (AFP) Feb 28, 2013

China Nobel winner Mo Yan defies critics
Beijing (AFP) Feb 28, 2013 - Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan has hit back at critics who accused him of being too close to China's government, saying in a newspaper interview he does not write on behalf of the ruling Communist party.

The writer scooped the Nobel in October for what judges called his "hallucinatory realism" and has won praise from literary critics, but is also fiercely attacked by Chinese dissidents who brand him a Communist stooge.

"I have emphasised repeatedly that I am writing on behalf of the people, not the party," he said in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, adding: "I detest corrupt officials."

Mo Yan hit out at exiled-Chinese dissident author Liao Yiwu, who called him a "state poet".

"I know (Liao) envies me for this award and I understand this. But his criticism is unjustified," he said. "My political views are quite clear. One only has to read my books."

In a style influenced by the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mo Yan's works deal with some of the darkest periods of China's recent history, and are often infused with politics and a dark, cynical sense of humour.

His latest novel, 2009's "Frog", is considered his most daring yet, with a searing depiction of China's "one child" population control policy and the local officials who ruthlessly implement it with forced abortions and sterilisations.

Literary critics have said he has dodged censure by deftly avoiding overt criticism of the current authorities. He is also vice-chairman of the officially endorsed China Writers' Association.

The author is among the estimated 80 million members of China's Communist party, and re-iterated his insistence that literary merit is separate from politics, rejecting dissident artist Ai Weiwei's early criticism of his Nobel victory.

"Which intellectual can claim to represent China? I certainly do not claim that. Can Ai Weiwei?," he asked, adding: "Those who can really represent China are digging dirt and paving roads with their bare hands."

Mo Yan repeated a statement made after his Nobel victory that he hoped Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, jailed in 2009 for calling for democratic change, could "regain his freedom as soon as possible".

But he said he was frustrated with repeatedly being asked about Liu's case, saying that the requests reminded him of "rituals of repetition in the Cultural Revolution", the decade from 1966-76 that saw violent political campaigns.

"If I decide not to speak, then not even a knife at my neck will make me speak," said the author, who was born Guan Moye but whose pen name means "not speak".

Mo Yan said his recent work tackled the question of individual responsibility for crimes committed during China's tumultuous 20th century. "Few people ask themselves, though: 'Have I also hurt others?'" he said.

"I was jealous of the achievements, the talents of other people, of their luck. Later, I even asked my wife to have an abortion for the sake of my own future," he said. "I am guilty."

Once a football commentator who drew a huge following in China as he rooted out corruption in the sport, Li Chengpeng is now one of the government's fiercest critics -- and lives in fear for his own safety.

Li works on the margins of the allowed and the forbidden in China, constantly pushing the boundaries as he seeks to tell its people the truth about their own country.

He also symbolises the breadth of opinions among ordinary Chinese, with an army of seven million followers on his blog and his books on the bestseller lists, while hardline Communists brand him a traitor and see him as an object of hate.

His latest book tour saw him punched in the head, a packaged knife thrown at him, and scuffles between liberals and leftists.

"I wear a stab-proof vest now for book signings," said Li, in a rare face-to-face interview with the foreign media, sitting in a quiet, dark tea room in the southwestern city of Chengdu, his home town.

"I also employ security guards, people who know kung-fu, to help protect me," he added. "I understand there has been more discussion on the Internet by Maoists about attacking me."

A short man of average build, Li looks and acts younger than his 44 years, but despite a sometimes fidgety demeanour speaks freely and with confidence, only distracted occasionally by his fellow tea-drinkers.

Five years ago he would have been considered an unlikely target for Communist supporters.

He was one of the country's most popular football commentators -- with a fondness for English Premiership side Everton -- and, as he put it, a "typical Chinese guy" who liked playing mahjong, eating hotpot and enjoying "writing poetry, beautiful women and making money".

But everything changed with the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people in his home province.

Li travelled to the disaster zone to try to help and the carnage he witnessed at Beichuan High School, where more than 1,000 pupils died, affected him profoundly.

"This made me realise that life is precious," he said.

Li became one of the most outspoken critics -- along with dissident artist Ai Weiwei -- of shoddy building work alleged to have led to many schools collapsing across Sichuan, and the deaths of thousands of children.

"When I am not satisfied with what is going on in the world, some darkness exists in my heart," he said. "I questioned what I should do with my life. I was working for the state broadcaster, but would give it all up to write about real life."

In 2009, he set up his microblog on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, where his profile soared after "Chinese Soccer: The Inside Story", a book he co-authored exposing match-fixing in the sport, was released.

In his new work, "The Whole World Knows", he wrote that Beijing's policy of drafting youngsters into the sports system and training them intensively to produce champions amounted to taking over their lives.

"The country only cares about their family life in so far as it can take over the mother's womb to give birth."

But as Li's writings focused more on political corruption, freedom of speech and the lack of other rights in the country, he began to polarise views, supported by mainly young, liberal-minded Chinese, but hated by Communist loyalists.

He is often categorised with other prominent Chinese activists, such as blind self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng and Ai, who he says he knows well.

But Li says he has a different agenda to the two figures, who are both more widely known overseas than in China.

"Ai Weiwei wants to tell the whole world the truth about China, but I just want my fellow Chinese to know the truth about their own country," he said.

Echoing the nationalism that drives some of his most determined opponents, he said he did not want China to be controlled by overseas powers.

"Reform can be achieved in China but we do not want to be a colony of America. China should consider the views of its own people."

Li's most extreme foes do not differentiate between government and state, so brand him a traitor for openly criticising the ruling Communist Party.

"We all love our country, but we just have different ways of showing it," he responds. "I love my country, and that is why I criticise the government. I think that scrutinising the government shows true love of one's country."

There may be signs the authorities are beginning to tolerate his brand of patriotism. Publication of his book was allowed, albeit with some censorship, and this week it was at number four in the bestsellers list.

"They know that I do not front an organisation, that I am not backed by foreign money, and I rarely give interviews to foreign media," he said.

But in a one-party state tolerance only goes so far. Li was ordered not to speak in public on his tour, and instead appeared with tape over his mouth.

He remains defiant. "It is a writer's glorious job to criticise his society," he said, adding with a grin that the state broadcaster was his benchmark for reform.

"China needs more Li Chengpengs. But one day if CCTV starts criticising the government, then I can go back to writing poetry."


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