Wednesday May 27, 2020


October 23, 2015

An analysis of interesting news stories from the past week:

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe Wins Confucian Peace Prize

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was just awarded the Confucius Peace Prize. Created in 2010 as a response to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Confucius Peace Prize has been awarded to a number of controversial figures in past years, including Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin.

Although the judges maintain that the rationale for Mugabe’s win is that he is “the founding leader of Zimbabwe” and that he has improved the political and economic stability of the country, he set up authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe and used brutal tactics to suppress his challengers, garnering him a reputation as a dictator. Westerners often criticize Mugabe’s tactics, but some of his most vehement opposition comes from Zimbabweans themselves, who quickly took to twitter to voice their anger at his Confucius Peace Prize win.

China, along with some other Asian countries, has often asserted that human rights as defined by the West do not address Asian culture and as such do not entirely apply to China. Instead, the China insists that it has an equally valid system of rights that is rooted in Confucianism. The PRC often interprets Western insistence on universal human rights as an infringement of sovereignty and a form of cultural imperialism.

Perhaps a Confucian Peace Prize is a useful tool for teaching other countries about the Confucian value of harmony and how it can be used to create a more peaceful future. Unfortunately, when the PRC selects leaders like Mugabe as the recipient, who is even criticized by his fellow Zimbabweans, it erodes the authority and legitimacy of the Confucius Peace Prize in the eyes of the global community and makes the prize seem like a political tool for retaliation against the West rather than an intrinsically valid recognition of peace-building.

Of course, the Nobel Peace Prize is not without controversy either, and many critics in China would accuse the Nobel committee of deliberately provoking China when it selected Liu Xiaobo in 2010 or the Dalai Lama in 1989 as the recipients for that prize. Many people also opposed President Obama’s selection in 2009, arguing that his use of drones and engagement in two wars at the time of the award should have prohibited him from winning.

That’s not to say that controversial figures should not win peace prizes, but if China-US relations are to improve, the selection committees for these kinds of prizes need to wield their power responsibly and select receipts based on merit rather than using the award as a mechanism for achieving a political aim.

China Offers Free Maoist Theory Course Online

China has recently begun to offer online courses on edX, an online education platform hosted by Harvard and MIT. One such course, titled “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought”, is offered by Tsinghua University, and is a condensed version of a mandatory course in all Chinese universities. The course was initially very popular and was viewed in more than 125 countries, but many of the students felt that the course was essentially a propaganda piece that promoted Maoism without discussing any of the historical controversies surrounding Mao’s rule.

Some students found that the course was enlightening and gave them a better insight into why Mao is so highly revered in China. Various Chinese students who took the course argued that although it may be propaganda, it actually offered foreign students an authentic taste of what education is like in China, which has its own intrinsic value. A number of US-based China scholars have even go as far as to suggest that edX discontinue the course, arguing that the platform should never have agreed to host such a blatant piece of propaganda in the first place. EdX will continue to host the course, as their policy is to only remove courses with offensive or illegal content.

In recent years, the PRC has made an effort to promote China internationally and increase China’s “soft power” around the world, which is especially visible in the promulgation of Confucius Institutes. The recent move to offer online courses seems to be an effort to emulate the US’s ability to attract foreign student to its world-renowned education system through schools and universities.

Although China’s soft power is growing worldwide, it still lags behind America’s global influence on contemporary culture. Many Americans (as well as citizens of other countries) are open to learning about China; clearly, Chinese language courses are extremely popular in US universities and they will only continue to attract more students. However, as soon as students get a sense that they are being fed propaganda, it can be a deterrent. The sooner the PRC recognizes that propaganda is increasingly less effective (especially with the growth of social media and the widespread availability of information), the more success China will have at promoting its soft power.

Prince Charles Skips Xi Jinping Banquet

Prince Charles has chosen not to attend the Banquet hosted at Buckingham Palace. Though he has not discussed it with the press, Prince Charles is known to have very close ties with the Dalai Lama and has snubbed China related events in the past. He will meet with President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan twice during their visit to the UK, but will skip the dinner, probably in an effort to signify his disapproval of China’s human rights record in Tibet

Ever since Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in 2012, he and the chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne have worked to develop closer ties to the PRC. The US is troubled by the UK’s close relationship with China, especially as the UK was the first Western country to sign on to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has been met with disapproval by the US.

Although the UK is providing a grand welcome to President Xi, Prince Charles stance depicts some ongoing internal struggles that the UK grapples with in engaging with China. The UK and the US both have to strike a delicate balance between maintaining business opportunities with the PRC, upholding universal human rights values, and pleasing constituents on the domestic front.

Xi Jinping Visits the UK:

President Xi plans to visit to the UK. Recently, the Sino-UK relationship has evolved to become increasingly pragmatic and focused primarily on Britain’s economic ties with China. Since 2012, when Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama, he has handed the China portfolio over to the British chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who is focused on finance and investment.

The UK has been accused of prioritizing business at the expense of other more contentious issues such as cyber security and human rights. Indeed, pundits expect that Xi and Cameron will be able to strike at least two deals next week, chief among them is securing Chinese investment in a British nuclear power station, which has drawn criticism from people concerned with China’s involvement in UK national security.

The topic of how Western leaders ought to best engage with China has emerged as a popular subject of discussion in the media recently, especially as we draw nearer to the US Presidential election, and as President Xi will have embarked on two major state visits in the US and UK within the past few months. It seems to be a very delicate balancing act between the “carrot and stick”; US and UK politicians must maintain and develop new opportunities to engage with the PRC economically, but must also chastise the PRC on its human rights record and security issues to satisfy constituents. Clearly, US presidential candidates have leaned toward criticizing China, whereas UK politicians have sidestepped more controversial issues in order to embrace China as a business partner. Even President Obama, who no longer needs to engage in China-bashing rhetoric to impress voters, has not sought Chinese business as overtly as the UK.

In dealing with the PRC, there really are no easy answers. The US clearly needs to do a better job of strengthening and investing in the Sino-US relationship, and could learn from the UK’s example. On the other hand, the critics do have a point; the global community must enforce standards of behavior and justice, especially in the realm of human rights. Many US politicians pay lip service to this value while pandering to constituents, but they should also be serious about enforcing human rights values domestically and abroad. (Specifically, the US needs to focus on police violence against young African American men – which has emerged as a major issue domestic human rights issue that really damages American credibility and erodes authority on enforcing global standards.)

China is not the only country in the world that violates human rights, nor is it the worst offender, but it seems to be the most popular scapegoat. For example, Saudi Arabia has a poor human rights record, but has such close ties to the US that no US politicians will dare to criticize it. This kind of double standard further damages American credibility when speaking about human rights in China.

For more information on these topics, please see the following sources:

The New York Times on Robert Mugabe:

Quartz on Robert Mugabe:

The New York Times on China’s Online Courses:

The New York Times on Prince Charles and Xi Jinping’s Banquet:

The New York Times on Xi Jinping’s Visit to the UK: