Confusion over Confucius? Zimbabwe's Mugabe wins Chinese peace prize

Since 2010, China has given an annual award to recipients such as Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin, in an apparent riposte to the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015.

The figure of ancient lore in China known as Confucius devoted his life to wisdom and benevolence. In China’s current search for deeper values, Confucius is being turned to for answers. His name adorns China’s version of the Nobel Prize given to an individual deemed to be promoting the values of “universal harmony in the world.”

This year's Confucius Peace Prize has gone to Zimbabwean autocrat Robert Mugabe for “injecting fresh energy” into the quest for peace, as the 76- member judging committee stated.

The annual prize was started in 2010 to exemplify distinct "Asian values." Not coincidentally, that same year the Nobel Peace Prize went to Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo who remains in jail. Since then, the Chinese prize has gone to figures like Russian President Vladimir Putin – praised for his intervention in Chechnya – and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. 

Among China scholars and Confucius experts, the prize and its recipients have stirred disbelief and dismay. Initial reports on the prize going to Mr. Mugabe, who is widely accused of stealing elections, wrecking the economy, and turning the breadbasket of Africa into a net importer of food, were treated as a media spoof. 

“Confucius... is a symbol of honesty, forbearance, respect, and humane wisdom,” says Lionel Jensen, an associate professor of language and culture at Notre Dame. “To confer an award in this name to Mugabe, is to dishonor and profane his memory … and [shows] appalling disregard of China's cultural heritage.”

Scholars like Mr. Jensen, author of "Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization," are critical of the use of Confucius to promote authoritarianism.

Daniel Bell, a leading thinker on Chinese and Asian values at Tsinghua University in Beijing says in an email that, "Confucius argued that a government should first secure the conditions for the material well being of the people, then educate them." Prof. Bell, author of "The China Model," adds that, "On any reasonable indicator of good governance, Mugabe did the opposite. "

Officially Confucius was born in 551 BC near the city of Qufu in what is now Shandong Province. Historians say Confucius is probably a composite of several figures living in eastern China over a period of several hundred years, one of whom went by the name of Kongzi and whose teaching on pluralism and diversity were highly progressive for their times.

In recent years China's rulers have appropriated the figure of Confucius in Chinese schools and in symbols as a way to “fuse” modes of communist ideology with a deeper national identity. 

Qiao Wei, a poet who serves as head of the prize judging committee, told The New York Times that Mugabe was the 2015 favorite of the judges, citing Mugabe's work at “stabilizing” and “benefiting” Zimbabwe.

The news caused some scholars to say in jest that the 2015 award is a precursor to next year’s likely winner, Kim Jong-un of North Korea. Other said the ceremony should take place at The Hague in the Netherlands, which is home to the International Criminal Court. 

“Mugabe is the most recent of a number of figures of international disrepute or wholesale ethical repudiation who have received the award,” says Jensen. “The history of the prize itself is comical bordering on the absurd for it is inextricably entangled with the Chinese government's anger about Liu Xiaobo's receipt of the Nobel.”

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