The development certainly seems to have blindsided the international press — Zimbabwean media reported that he had received the award on Sunday to little notice, but as word of the irony spread on social media, Western news outlets began amplifying coverage of the dubious distinction.
The Confucius Peace Prize was created in 2010 as an alternative to the Nobel version, after the Chinese government was angered by the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a prominent Chinese dissident. It comes with a cash prize of 500,000 Yuan, or more than $78,000. Past recipients include Russian President Vladimir Putin and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Mugabe was ostensibly decorated for working hard to "bring political and economic order to the country and to improve the welfare of the Zimbabwean people," according to China's state-run Global Times newspaper. The citation applauded the dictator for "overcoming a number of difficulties" in the course of his administration "while continuing to work at the age of 91 actively for African peace."
The 76-person committee was reportedly split as to whether to give it to Mugabe or the other nominees, among whom were South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Over the course of Mugabe's many years in power, human rights groups have documented his government's grave abuses of Zimbabwe's citizens, including arbitrary arrests, torture camps, and the extra-judicial killing of men, women, and children. News of the decision to award Mugabe a piece prize has been met with criticism from his political opposition, human rights advocates, and everyday political observers alike.
Gorden Moyo, a member of Zimbabwe's main opposition, the People's Democratic Party, declared that his party was "disgusted" by the decision.
"We would like to put it on record that as a party we are dismayed by this show of malice by the organizers and promoters of this Prize," Moyo wrote in a statement. "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."
Jeffery Smith, Africa specialist at the organization Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, called the award a "sham" but nevertheless typical of such authoritarians.
"Dictators who long ago lost international legitimacy by clinging to power at all costs, as in the case of Robert Mugabe, routinely seek to burnish their image and credentials with bogus awards," Smith said. "It's also a form of authoritarian solidarity against a perceived monolithic and evil West. This latest bogus award to Mugabe is an example of both, and shouldn't be taken seriously."
Mugabe is not the first African authoritarian dictator to be honored for his leadership. Gambia's leader, Yahya Jammeh, was recently awarded two prizes for his outstanding leadership by obscure organizations in the US. Both awards were extensively covered in the Gambian press, which Jammeh's government controls.
Qiao Damo, the chairman of the Confucius Peace Prize committee, told the Guardian that Mugabe deserved the honor because Zimbabwe was much more stable than it would have been without him, and certainly when compared to countries like Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq.
"It's much better than Libya too," he added, seemingly oblivious to the fact that national stability relative to war-torn Libya is an exceedingly low bar.
Smith said the award should be seen as more of a reputation booster to those who receive it rather than as a sign of China's growing investment in Africa, especially when one considers its past recipients.
"It nonetheless helps counteract negative attention and burnish the credentials of a state that operates a total monopoly over the media sector," he added.
Though the announcement came over the weekend, the official award ceremony is scheduled to take place in December in Beijing. Whether or not Mugabe will be picking up the prize in person remains unclear.