Last year, you criticized the Nobel laureate Mo Yan for being a "patsy". Do writers living in regimes such as China's have a responsibility to oppose
censorship? Or simply not to defend it?
I don't feel that writers should be pushed into corners, and there are many writers who aren't temperamentally suited to political engagement in
whatever society they happen to be in, so you wouldn't want to make such a writer feel obliged to make a decision. But the reason that so many are
upset with Mo Yan isn't that he didn't oppose censorship, but that he went out of his way to defend it. That was the problem.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since you were forced into hiding by the Ayatollah's fatwa. In the ensuing years, how would you assess the
worldwide climate for censorship? Have things generally gotten better, or worse?
I'd say that, in general, they've gotten worse. But one of the things our report highlights is that people have more tools to resist censorship using
new media. For instance, in China, while there's increased repression in the form of arbitrary
arrests, artists held incommunicado and put under house arrest, and increasing hostility towards literature and free expression, there is at the same time a growing willingness of Chinese citizens to find ways to express themselves. In spite of all the repression, there's been a growth of
independent, non-state publishers to print things that wouldn't be approved by state houses, and people have shown the willingness to post things online even if they're not to the
liking of the state.
Is this a battle that China's citizens will win?
I don't want to be Pollyannish -- it's entirely possible that they'll lose. China has been pretty effective over the years in silencing dissident voices --
just consider the case of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, who resorted to shouting "not free" in court to remind people of her situation. The Chinese are
good at repression and can be pretty ruthless about it.
But I feel that, in the end, China does want to have a more significant role in international affairs, it does want to be seen as a big player in the
world, it wants to have authority, it wants to have respect, it wants to be treated as one of the great voices in the world today. They're beginning to
be aware that their behavior is damaging their reputation, though, and I think if you put sufficient pressure on authoritarian regimes they often see
that it is in their own self-interest to ease up on repression.
Does the Nobel Committee have a responsibility to pass up writers who are accommodating to bad regimes?
Well -- I don't want to preach to the Nobel Committee, and in fairness to it the Committee always claims to be separate from politics; not to mention, it has a
record of recognizing writers who were at odds with regimes, such as Boris Pasternak. In the end, I wouldn't overstate the importance of prizes, even
though they're of course very important to the writers who win them.