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Photo of Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking across locals’ backs ignites debates

11:50 | 20/08/2020

Chinese ambassador Tang Songgen was pictured walking along the backs of young men as part of the local cultural welcome practice during his visit to Kiribati. However, the photo reignited the geopolitical debate about China's rising influence in the Pacific as it circulates on the Internet.

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photo of chinese ambassador to kiribati walking across locals backs ignites debates
Chinese ambassador Tang Songgen walks on the backs of young men, part of a welcoming gesture on Marakei island in Kiribati (Photo: The Guardian)

According to The Guardian, an unknown photographer has taken of Songgen’s arrival at Kiribati, in which the ambassador walked along the backs of around 30 young men who had lain on their stomachs in front of him. He was holding the hands of two women in traditional dress.

The ritual was held on Marakei Island in Kiribati, as part of a welcoming ceremony for the ambassador.

Kiribati's Minister for Environment Ruateki Tekaiara was on the island when Mr. Tang visited to learn about the culture and see some schools and churches.

Mr Tekaiara, who is also a local MP for Marakei Island, said the pictured ritual was a way to show the highest respect and love to a visitor, ABC.net.au said.

"It is a very special culture … and unique," Tekaiara was quoted as saying. "This is the culture from the island … no-one can oppose this when the elders decide."

While some observers have argued the image is emblematic of China’s increasing influence in the archipelagic nation, many i-Kiribati online have argued the practice is traditional and the photo has been wilfully misinterpreted.

Locals pointed out the practice is customary

This is our island’s show of respect for guests,” Adlih Ztuhcs said online. “If a foreigner marries into a family the men would lie down as a way of welcome. As for the women, the men will carry her on her shoulders to her destination. The same form of welcoming is afforded to all and is seen during weddings and first-time visits. Let’s not manipulate facts to suit our stories.

"When I first saw the post on Facebook, one of my immediate comments was what a beautiful Kiribati culture," Rae Bainteiti, an -Kiribati man living in New Zealand, whose grandmother is from Marakei Island said.

"It might be misinterpreted by other people depending on how they see it because the initial poster did not put background information or context into what was happening at the time."

Mr Bainteiti said he had seen that particular cultural practice as a child at family weddings — an explanation given by several others.

photo of chinese ambassador to kiribati walking across locals backs ignites debates
One Twiiter account tweets (Photo: Captured)

Not everyone feels the same about the photo

Rimon, who is a freelance journalist in Kiribati, said some locals were not happy with what they saw.

"People are angry, some are upset and embarrassed," he said.

"Even in the streets, a random guy, I told him about it and he was disgusted by it. He said this is not appropriate for someone to allow someone to do that."

The photo has emerged while there are still fresh feelings in the country over last year's switch in allegiance to China.

Kiribati severed ties with Taiwan in September, leaving Taiwan with just 15 diplomatic allies around the world.

Mr Rimon, who worked with Kiribati's former president, Anote Tong, said he had never witnessed a Taiwanese ambassador welcomed in the same way during his time in politics.

"There have been a number of Taiwan ambassadors who have visited the same island and I am not aware any that were afforded that welcome ceremony," he said.

Foreign politicians and officials weigh in

According to The Guardian, the United States’ defence attache to five Pacific Islands including Kiribati, Commander Constantine Panayiotou, said online: “I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behavior by an ambassador of any country (or any adult for that matter!) Yet here we are thanks to China’s ambassador to Kiribati.”

photo of chinese ambassador to kiribati walking across locals backs ignites debates
Commander Constantine Panayiotou voiced his concerns on the Internet (Photo: Captured)

“I’d be very surprised if an Australian representative participated in such a ceremony of this nature,” he told the ABC.

The head of Australia’s office for the Pacific said on Tuesday that the current high commissioner, Bruce Cowled, had not participated in any similar ceremony.

Chinese ambassador Tang Songgen's response

Tang, appointed China’s ambassador to Kiribati in March, posted a statement online about his visit to Tabiteuea North, Tabiteuea South, and Marakei earlier this month.

The embassy team was warmly welcomed and received in those islands by the old men, the island councils as well as the local people. We were greeted in traditional courtesies, invited to local maneaba [meeting house] ceremonies, where the whole team was overwhelmed by the unique culture and hospitality.”

The statement said “our primary goal is to have China-Kiribati relationship benefit more Kiribati people”.

A former British colony made up of three archipelagos sprawled over an ocean area the size of India, Kiribati has acquired significant strategic importance in the era of US-China rivalry in the Pacific.

US concerns were enlivened last year after Kiribati’s president Taneti Maamau made a sudden and controversial decision to switch Kiribati’s diplomatic recognition back to China after 17 years allied to Taiwan.

The US military has flagged concerns that Kiribati might allow China to build dual-use (military and civilian) facilities on its largest island, Christmas, just 2,000km south of Hawaii, and home of the US Pacific Fleet.

Kiribati is already developing fishing infrastructure on Christmas in partnership with a Chinese company, but Maamau told the Guardian this month “there was never any intention or plan by this government to allow China an accessory base in Kiritimati [Christmas]”.

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