Last week the unappetizing leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, was awarded the Confucius Peace Prize. This prize, eponymously named after the Chinese Philosopher, is often described as China's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the committee Mugabe has "overcome difficulties of all kinds and has strongly committed himself to constructing his nation's political and economic order, while strongly supporting pan-Africanism and African independence." That Mugabe could be deserving of a peace prize is obviously laughable. A frequent human rights violator, he has overseen repeated bouts of ethnic cleansing. Between 1982 and 1985 nearly 20,000 people were executed and buried in mass graves. While constructing his nation's "political and economic order" Mugabe has presided over a 40% fall in GDP since the year 2000. He has also publicly described homosexuals as "worse than dogs and pigs".
Mugabe therefore is not a paragon of peace, and the decision to award him a peace prize has been met with raised eyebrows and blanket condemnation. What is less clear however is to what extent this prize really is China's genuine alternative to the Nobel. The prize was set up in 2010 after the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which was presented in Oslo to an empty chair, much to the Chinese government's chagrin.
The Chinese government however did not set up the Confucius Peace Prize, nor are they directly involved in the proceedings. The prize was conceived and is administered by a group of wealthy Chinese businessmen in Hong Kong operating under the moniker "The Association of Chinese Indigenous Arts in the People's Republic of China." Despite initial claims by the group that they were working under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry for Culture, the Ministry has rigorously denied any association. The name of the award is intentionally misleading as it conflates the prize with the current government-sponsored rehabilitation of Confucius' legacy.
The prize is not directly supported nor awarded by the Chinese government. While some may argue that the government must provide at least tacit support for the award, the fact that it is administered in Hong Kong allows the organizers more freedom than if they were operating from within the mainland. It is also likely the case that the Chinese government sees no value in closing the awards as to do so would have the inverse effect of giving the organizing committee greater credibility. It would also force the government into an awkward position of having to take a position in regards to human rights that contravenes it's avowed policy of strict non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations.
This is an important point to make as the prize annually garners widespread attention. Much has been made of the grim cast of previous recipients; including luminaries such as Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro.
None of the recipients of the awards have ever actually travelled to receive it in person, nor have they shown any real interest in the accolade. The Taiwanese government dismissed it as "amusing" after former KMT Secretary General Lien Chan won the inaugural prize. This year Mugabe, after finding out the award had no relationship to the Chinese Government itself, politely declined it.
The problem with the recent reporting of this prize is that it plays all too easily into a simplified narrative of China as a human rights abuser and supporter of totalitarian regimes the world over. By understanding that this prize is not representative of the Chinese government or of contemporary thinking in regards to human rights or international affairs in China we can focus on issues of actual importance. There is a pressing need for a nuanced and evolving dialogue with China over human rights. By overplaying the significance of something as esoteric and isolated as this award we are missing the wood for the trees.