Zimbabwe's controversial president Robert Mugabe was awarded China's alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize Thursday for what the prize committee called his inspired national leadership and service to pan-Africanism.

The 91-year-old Mugabe is the latest in a series of critics of the West who have received the Confucius Peace Prize.

Under his rule, the government pushed a plan to acquire large parcels of land, many from white owners, to give to black farmers. When owners challenged the move in 2002, Mugabe reportedly called them "greedy, greedy colonials."

After fighting in a guerrilla war in the 1970s, Mugabe was elected president in 1980. He has been in power for 35 years with no clear successor.

Critics say he cracked down on opposition groups, sending many of their leaders to jail.

The prize committee defended its decision, saying 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."

His selection as head for one year of the 54-member African Union struck some as a poor precedent on a continent where democratic change has struggled for a foothold in many regions. Mugabe is also the rotating chief of the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation group.

Mugabe received only 36 of 76 votes, but was awarded the prize following a meeting of the committee's 13-member review board. Other candidates included Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Prior recipients of the prize, granted by a non-governmental committee composed mainly of scholars, include former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Russian President Vladimir Putin. None has come to claim the prize in person.

The Confucius Peace Prize was first awarded in 2010 amid Beijing's anger and resentment over the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.