The chairman of an award dubbed China’s Nobel peace prize has defended the decision to honour Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, for supposedly “injecting fresh energy” into the global quest for harmony.
Mugabe, who has been accused of using systematic violence and torture to maintain his 35-year grip on power, recently became the latest recipient of China’s Confucius peace prize.
The Beijing-run Global Times newspaper said 91-year-old Mugabe had beaten off competition from candidates including the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, and the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye.
“Ever since Robert Mugabe was sworn in as the president of Zimbabwe in the 1980s, he has worked hard to bring political and economic order to the country and to improve the welfare of the Zimbabwean people by overcoming hardship,” the prize committee argued in a statement.
The committee praised Mugabe’s stewardship of the 54-state African Union after he became its chairman earlier this year.
News of Mugabe’s Chinese award sparked fury among opposition groups in Zimbabwe and ridicule among human rights activists.
“The rule of Mugabe is paved with blood, violence, arson and cruelty,” Gorden Moyo, the secretary general of the People’s Democratic party, claimed on the Bulawayo 24 news website.
Moyo said his party was “utterly disgusted” with the Chinese tribute to Zimbabwe’s leader, whom he called “a war-monger … and a sadist who delights in the misery of the people”.
The Confucius award was set up in 2010 as a Chinese alternative to the Nobel peace prize after the Norwegian Nobel committee infuriated Beijing by handing its annual peace prize to the jailed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo. Liu remains in prison for co-writing a pro-democracy manifesto called Charter 08.
Previous winners of the Confucius prize include Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro, who was praised by the committee for “speaking out against nuclear warfare”.
Qiao Damo, the committee’s chairman, told the Guardian he supported the decision to recognise the achievements of Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.
“If Zimbabwe did not have Mugabe as its president, the country would be facing great difficulty – even public security might be in danger,” Qiao said.
He added: “Every country’s economy has its highs and lows. Though its economy is lagging behind, [Zimbabwe is] a very stable country [and] stability is precious in the African continent.”
Liu Zhiqin, one of the committee’s 76 members, admitted the decision had divided the group with only 36 voting for Mugabe.
“Frankly speaking, there were internal concerns about awarding Mugabe the peace prize. I myself have reservations,” he said. “Mugabe has been in power for such a long time that he could be easily be labelled a dictator, tyrant or despot.”
The Daily News, an opposition newspaper in Harare, said it was unclear if Mugabe would travel to China to collect his “shadowy prize” in person .
The prize comes with an award of 500,000 yuan (£51,000) and a gold trophy of the ancient Chinese philosopher whose name it takes.
Qiao argued that Mugabe had provided his people with a much better standard of living than citizens of Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. “It’s much better than Libya too,” he added.