China has awarded its version of the Nobel Peace Prize to Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean dictator who has been widely condemned for repressing his own people throughout his 35-year rule.
Mugabe, 91, is reported to have prevailed against Microsoft founder Bill Gates and South Korean President Park Geun-hye for this year’s Confucius Peace Prize. China developed the alternative award in 2010 out of frustration after the Nobel committee awarded its prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident and democracy activist who remains in jail.
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Beijing says these autocratic leaders have helped preserve security and stability in their countries.
"Though its economy is lagging behind, [Zimbabwe is] a very stable country [and] stability is precious in the African continent," said Qiao Damo, chairman of the Confucius Prize committee, on its decision to honor Mugabe.
Rick Fisher, an expert on China at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said it would be a "mistake" to dismiss Beijing’s prize as a meaningless gesture.
"Through this prize China is telegraphing its hostility to democracy by legitimizing these brutal dictatorships," Fisher said. "This effort may now be crude and repellent but in the future it will become more sophisticated, especially in countries where China becomes the dominant commercial and political partner."
China has significantly expanded its investments in Africa, for example, where it has been accused of cooperating with corrupt leaders at the expense of workers’ rights.
"This is a valuable warning that when China becomes a global military superpower in the next decade, it will be supporting anti-democratic forces and seeking to contain the United States," Fisher said.
The State Department declined to comment on Mugabe’s award.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980, has amended the country’s constitution throughout his reign to centralize power in the executive. His ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), uses "state institutions to punish opposition supporters and activists," according to Freedom House.
Party agents assaulted dozens of opposition politicians and activists last year. Zimbabwean authorities have also targeted Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent human rights lawyer who has defended journalists and activists.
Activists rebuked the African Union, a regional leadership body, when it elected Mugabe as its chairman in January.
"Mugabe, who has trampled on people’s human rights in Zimbabwe the greater part of his 35-year rule, will definitely not add any value to society," an independent newspaper in Zimbabwe wrote. "Mugabe has stayed in power largely through election rigging and the arrest and intimidation of opponents."
China’s celebration of Mugabe, Fisher said, is another sign that Beijing is unlikely to reciprocate the U.S. government’s efforts to establish closer ties.
"The Confucius Prize is a reminder of the Chinese Communist Party's essential hostility toward democracy and that there is little chance that it will be as generous to the United States as a subordinate power, as the U.S. has so generously helped China's rise," Fisher said.