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A Question of Pride
Asia's Nobel prizes celebrate reform, freedom and innovation

Inside the Soul Mountain: Gao Xingjian and the freedom to write

In Gao Xingjian's play Bus Stop, frustrated commuters wait ten years for a vehicle that never pulls in. The victory bus finally arrived for Gao himself last week when he was named this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. The first Chinese writer to win the prestigious award, Paris-based Gao had been on the shortlist for some years, though the dissident writer's selection was still a big surprise. More prominent Chinese figures acceptable to Beijing had been considered better bets. Some of Gao's rivals were positively peeved. Red Sorghum author Mo Yan hung up when Asiaweek phoned for a reaction. He answered a second call with a "no comment."

For the first time, Asia is celebrating three Nobel prizes in the same year. The trio was capped on Oct. 13 when the Nobel committee in Oslo announced that after 14 consecutive nominations, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung had finally won the peace prize for his commitment to democracy, human rights and reconciliation with the Communist North. With Gao, that put two anti-establishment figures on the Nobel honor roll, international recognition that reform and the defense of liberty have become Asia's new touchstones. The third laureate from the region was Shirakawa Hideki of Japan's University of Tsukuba who won the chemistry prize for his work on developing conductive plastics.

In Seoul, Kim's prize was greeted with a surge of national pride, which Koreans had lost when they were hit by the financial crisis in 1997. "He deserved it," exulted 70-year-old farmer Chung Soon Dal, father of a pro-democracy activist. The unprecedented triple crown was certainly a boost to Asian self-esteem. "It focuses Asia in the minds of people all over the world," former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun told Asiaweek. Adds Malaysian oppositionist Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of ousted deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim: "It's a new awakening for Asia."

Every year, the wisdom of the Nobel selectors in Scandinavia is a matter of dispute, particularly when it comes to their choices for the peace and literature awards. A Nobel doesn't confer sainthood — even Mother Teresa had her faults. Nor does it ensure success. (Remember the peace prize for Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat in 1994?) Still, the Nobel is an incomparable honor. For the scientist, it is a lifelong dream, the validation of a long career. For the writer, it means a guaranteed rise in book sales and royalties. And for the peace laureate, it bestows moral authority. Nobel prizewinners have stature. Says Shirakawa, who shares his award with two American colleagues: "I now find myself in a more socially responsible position."

Yet while the three prizes given to Asians rewarded dedication to reform, individual freedom and innovation, they highlighted too how the region needs more of it. Take Shirakawa. Unlike most of the Asian scientists who have won Nobels, he did his research at home, though he got support to develop his initial breakthrough not from local colleagues, but from the U.S. Apart from one year in America, Shirakawa has remained in Japan. He retired in March. To win in the New Economy, Asia will need more Shirakawas toiling in its laboratories.

Kim's award too was poignant, if not unexpected. While four anti-establishment figures — Myanmar oppositionist Aung San Suu Kyi, Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and East Timor's Bishop Carlos Belo and JosE Ramos-Horta — had won the peace prize before him, the veteran politician and ex-dissident is the first sitting Asian government leader to be honored. (Former Japanese premier Sato Eisaku had left office in 1974 by the time he was picked.) This time, the reformer being recognized is in the driver's seat. Ironically, though he finally has his coveted Nobel, Kim is facing feisty opposition at home. "[The prize] does not absolve him of his failure in economic reform and restructuring," carps opposition leader Lee Hoi Chang. Former president Kim Young Sam says that his successor had wanted the Nobel so badly that he sacrificed the interests of South Korea to appease the North. Still, many Asians pushing for change welcomed Kim's prize. Says Malaysia's Azizah, repeating a comment made by her jailed husband: "Asia has come forward but we can't forget the excesses committed in this region."

And what of the meaning behind Gao's selection? It would be easy to attribute his selection to bald-faced politics. Beijing has criticized the Nobel panel for choosing the exiled dissident artist-writer, whose works are banned in China. The prize committee's citation suggests that Gao's style and his message of individual freedom had impressed the panel. That he is more celebrated in Western literary circles than back home may be just the point. "Gao is excellent at using modern language to capture a China in flux," says Beijing University professor Xie Mian. "He has contributed to China's opening up." Literature, as well as politics and science, are not immune to globalization.

With bureau reporting

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