Chinese writer Mo Yan ... the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize winner.

Chinese writer Mo Yan ... the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize winner. Photo: AFP

There are idiots - and then there's the Chinese government.

For a country so sophisticated in much of what it does, Beijing's tin-ear on freedom of expression and a whole suite of rights taken for granted in Western societies and the regime's media management of the issue read like a never-ending Monty Python skit.

Consider the gyrations in China of one of the world's most stable currencies - the Nobel prizes.

Fuming, the regime rejected the awarding of the 2010 peace prize to dissident writer Liu Xiaobo as foreign meddling in China's affairs. But this week it drooled as it heralded the granting of the 2012 literature prize to the writer Mo Yan, pictured, as an overdue acknowledgement of China's contribution to human civilisation.

How can one be welcomed so enthusiastically and the other rejected so furiously?

In 2010, no retaliatory insult was too great for Oslo - Beijing attempted to sanitise the media of any mention of Liu's award; visas for visiting Norwegian officials suddenly were cancelled; and imports of smoked salmon were left to rot in transit, rather than be processed by customs.

Fast-forward to this week, Mo is a state media darling. Normal TV programs were interrupted for news of the Nobel announcement, which was described as ''a comfort, a certification and also an affirmation''. Importantly, as events would reveal, Mo was declared to be one of the regime's own.

Unlike those grubby dissidents, a party-owned tabloid described Mo as a ''mainstream'' writer, before explaining: ''[The granting of the prize] suggests that the West doesn't only embrace individuals that are against the Chinese system.''

Thus, the Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, had snookered Beijing.

Indeed, Mo has been reticent about speaking on behalf of dissidents and in voicing demands for human-rights reform in China. But blessed by the Norwegians and lionised by the Chinese, that is precisely what Mo did on Friday, using his first press conference to demand the release of his fellow Nobel laureate Liu, who is serving an 11-year jail sentence for incitement to subvert state power after co-writing a call for reform.

But intended or not, the mastery in the Norwegian snooker strategy was not fully revealed until Friday's awarding of the 2010 Nobel peace Prize to the European Union - for its 60-plus-year contribution to ''the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe''.

So here was a reminder that could not be ignored by Beijing, that elsewhere in the world democracy was an acceptable framework in which nations and, in the case of the EU, virtually a whole continent, could craft the tapestry of all its successes and failures without robbing 500 million people of their rights as individuals. Human rights did not have to be a destructive force.

How could Beijing cock a snook at the credibility of the EU's prize at the same time as it luxuriates in Mo's?

State-run media did not report Mo's plea for the release of Liu. But it was taken up by social media, which have been consumed all week by a debate on Mo's credentials as a Nobel winner. In what read as a back-handed compliment, the writer Murong Xuecun said in an interview - ''maybe all the glory has made him more courageous and more outspoken''.

Mo has been attacked for deigning to serve as an officer of the government-run Chinese Writers' Association and for not raising the ire of the regime - either in what he says or what he writes.

He has been taken to task for arguing that state censorship can enhance the creative process. Also, he is criticised for being one of 100 Chinese literary figures, who by turns wrote a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong as a commemorative transcription.

But the Nobel citation argues that much of Mo's writing had been judged to be subversive because of its sharp criticism of Chinese society. ''You can open almost any one of his books and see it's very critical about many things to do with Chinese history and also contemporary China,'' said Peter Englund, head of the Swedish Academy.

Mo attempted to explain himself in a speech to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009: ''A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.''

If that was insufficient, he threw in an anecdote of the thinker Goethe stepping out with the composer Beethoven and their respective reactions as the royal entourage passed by - Beethoven kept walking; Goethe turned, doffing his hat.

''When I was young I thought what Beethoven did was great,'' Mo told his audience. ''But with age, I realised it could be easier to do what Beethoven did and it might take more courage to do what Goethe did.''

The Mo and EU awards were striking in combined messages to the world.

They told Beijing that if Mo can think, write and publish without punishment, then so too should the much-maligned Liu. But there was a message here, too, for those who have been quick to declare Mo unworthy as a Nobel laureate because of his past reticence to challenge the regime - the prize is an acknowledgement of his acclaimed writing, not his politics.

Similarly, the judges addressed the jokers who were so quick in taking to the twittersphere, to mock the award to the EU.

In tying the practice of democracy and human rights to the EU's overarching achievement of the management of peace on a continent that - historically - was so war torn, the judges invite the world to look beyond contemporary crises in Europe, and to consider a bigger-picture reality. In an era in which 24/7 media reporting treats everything as ''a war'', perhaps today's economic crises, bad and all as they are, are not as bad as the actual wars of the past.

Mo Yan's real name is Guan Moye. Funnily enough, the pen-name means ''don't speak''.