The founder of the Confucius Peace Prize, a would-be Chinese rival to the Nobel, on Thursday defended this year’s award to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has often been accused of rights abuses.
Qiao Damo, founder of the little-known China International Peace Studies Centre, which runs the accolade, told news agency AFP that Mugabe had been recognised for his “outstanding contributions” to world peace.
The nonagerian African leader beat nine other finalists, including Bill Gates, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, he added.
“If he hadn’t come to power in 1980, if he hadn’t played a role, how much talent would have been wasted!” said Qiao.
The Confucius prize emerged in 2010 as a Chinese response to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel award, which infuriated Beijing.
Mugabe—who has had a close relationship with Beijing for decades—joins an eclectic roster of past winners, which includes Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro as well as more mainstream figures such as Kofi Annan.
In a statement announcing the award in September, the committee praised Mugabe for being “committed to building the country’s political and economic order, for the benefit of the Zimbabwean people”, and for his “strong support of Pan-Africanism and African independence”.
READ: For first time in over 15 years, Mugabe openly asks for western role in ailing Zimbabwe economy.
Human rights groups and opposition politicians accuse Mugabe of overseeing the crippling of his country’s economy and brutal crackdowns, but the prize organisers dismissed their concerns.
Qiao cited Mugabe’s “ability to stabilise Zimbabwe and at the same time promote peace in Africa” as chairman of the African Union.
“Unrest is quite normal,” he said. “When America was first founded, it was also very chaotic, and Zimbabwe was only founded 30 years ago.”
Writing on Zimbabwe’s Bulawayo24 news site, Gorden Moyo, secretary-general of the People’s Democratic Party, a Zimbabwean opposition party led by former finance minister Tendai Biti, described the award as “insanity”.
“Mugabe as we know him and as the people of Zimbabwe have experienced his reign is a war-monger, a bellicosist and a sadist who delights in the misery of the people,” he said.
The prize organisers, he added, “should hang their heads in shame for rewarding murderers who masquerade as peace makers”.
An award ceremony—the honour is worth 500,000 yuan ($80,000) this year—will be held in December, Qiao said, adding the payment was funded by Chinese businessmen he declined to name.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told AFP the Confucius prize was “not affiliated with the government”.
Qiao said the award was intended to balance the Nobel “from the perspective of Confucian culture”, as the Norwegian peace prize was “too extreme and not consistent with facts”.
“The Nobel Peace Prize is built on the foundations of Western civilisation, but our peace prize is built on the foundation of Eastern civilisation,” he said.
The Zimbabwean embassy in Beijing declined to comment immediately to AFP.