Was there a conflict of interest behind the Nobel literature prize?

Last week’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in literature to Mo Yan was national news in China as state broadcasters broke into the regularly scheduled evening news to make the announcement that a Chinese writer had finally won the prize, easing anxiety among the country’s leaders regarding the Western world’s recognition of Chinese cultural ...

FREDRIK SANDBERG,FREDRIK SANDBERG/AFP/GettyImages
FREDRIK SANDBERG,FREDRIK SANDBERG/AFP/GettyImages
FREDRIK SANDBERG,FREDRIK SANDBERG/AFP/GettyImages

Last week's decision to award the Nobel Prize in literature to Mo Yan was national news in China as state broadcasters broke into the regularly scheduled evening news to make the announcement that a Chinese writer had finally won the prize, easing anxiety among the country's leaders regarding the Western world's recognition of Chinese cultural prowess.

But now the integrity of that prize has come under question in Sweden.

Last week’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in literature to Mo Yan was national news in China as state broadcasters broke into the regularly scheduled evening news to make the announcement that a Chinese writer had finally won the prize, easing anxiety among the country’s leaders regarding the Western world’s recognition of Chinese cultural prowess.

But now the integrity of that prize has come under question in Sweden.

Göran Malmqvist, a sinologist and member of the Swedish Academy, was instrumental in Mo’s selection, lobbying the academy to recognize the Chinese writer and providing Swedish translations of the writer’s work to other members of the academy. Now he stands to benefit financially from those tranlsations. According to a report by Swedish Television, Malmqvist will provide his translations to a Swedish publisher for publication. And according to the head of that publishing company, Tranan, because of the intense interest on Mo’s work as a result of his Nobel win Malmqvist will likely be able to name his own price.

According to an examination of the academy’s policies carried out by Swedish Television, Malmqvist’s actions in this case may be in violation of the Swedish Academy’s conflict of interest rules, which are extremely strict in order to prevent this type of real or perceived impropriety. If there is even a slight indication of conflict of interest, the person in question is supposed to leave the premises during discussions regarding the candidate, and a member of the academy affected by a potential conflict of interst can "in no way participate in the handling of the question."

In borderline cases, or ones that may only create a perceived conflict, the academy’s rules dictate that its members should err on the side of caution: "There may be circumstances that simply do not ‘feel right’ and that therefore could be called into question … In such cases members should err on the side of caution, and it may be appropriate to refrain from participating in the handling of the question."

Despite these rules, Peter Englund, the academy’s permanent secretary, confirmed to Swedish Television that Malmqvist was highly involved in discussions around awarding Mo the prize.

In the ensuing media frenzy, Englund and Malmqvist have both denied accusations that he stood to inappropriately benefit from awarding the prize to Mo.

Englund said in an email to Swedish Television that Malmqvist did not have an agreement in place with the publishing company to provide translations of Mo’s work prior to the academy’s decision to award him the Nobel. Only after that decision did Malmqvist provide the publisher with his translations. Critics of course contend that this is a disctinction without a difference, and that Malmqvist knew that he stood to bring in a hefty contract by having translations of Mo’s work ready for publication as soon as the prize was unveiled.

Malmqvist, meanwhile, is nothing short of furious at the accusations and sent a blistering email this week to a group of Swedish reporters and editors worth quoting at length:

"Swedish Television’s culture desk has apparently fumbled in the dark when they decided to try and dig up a conflict of interest scandal. Send them a message from me the next time you see them at your morning coffee that they should get better glasses or more powerful flashlights the next time they decide to venture out in the dark. With idiots like … Anton whatever-his-name-is at Swedish Television’s culture desk I suppose we have gotten the kind of cultural coverage that we deserve in this provincial backwater."

If this scandal develops further, it is only likely to further inflame Chinese insecurities about the prize. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to conjure up the inevitable angry statement issued by a CCP spokesman about how anti-Chinese elements in the Western cultural establishment will go to any length in order to discredit the achivements of Chinese artists, especially one that hasn’t yet fallen out of favor with the regime.

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

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