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Picture of Chinese ambassador walking on backs of Kiribati locals sparks controversy

A controversial photo of China’s ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of locals has sparked debate about cultural practices and China’s rising influence in the Pacific.

The picture, shared widely on social media, shows Chinese ambassador Tang Songgen visiting the island of Marakei earlier this month.

He can be seen stepping along the backs of a row of people lying on the ground while holding the hands of two women either side of him.

It comes after Kiribati suddenly switched its diplomatic alliance from Taipei in Taiwan to Beijing last September and has sparked debate given rising Chinese influence in the region.

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

But others have defended the picture, saying it is a cultural tradition that should not be misinterpreted.

Dr Katerina Teaiwa, who is associate professor at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said the people are showing a sense of honour and hospitality by lying down.

“The Marakei people can welcome dignitaries any way they like, it’s well known they follow many of the customs of their land. Everyone should be less hysterical about this and more respectful towards the diversity of Pacific ways, islanders should have cultural self-determination,” she toldThe Guardian.

“Pacific peoples can work out themselves which customs need to be kept or reshaped for our times and which should be changed if violent, discriminatory, etc. I’m always impressed with how I-Kiribati continue to respect the spirits of abara – our lands – in spite of colonial rule.”

Kiribati’s Environment Minister, Ruateki Tekaiara was there for the visit that included seeing locals schools and churches. He said the local elders had organised the welcome and it was a “special culture” unique to the island.

“This is the culture from the island … no-one can oppose this when the elders decide.”

The Chinese Embassy said its ambassador had visited the island to learn about the country’s culture and traditions.

“Our primary goal is to have China-Kiribati relationship benefit more Kiribati people,” the Embassy said at the time.

“We are very much impressed by the strong will and determination of advancing co-operation with China from those islands.”

However local freelance journalist Rimon Rimon also told the ABC some locals were not happy with the picture.

“People are angry, some are upset and embarrassed,” he said, adding that it had sparked political debate.

“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.”

“Outside us in the region, they see this with the current political landscape with China in the region and the West and all that, and then we see a Chinese ambassador stepping on them. What statement is that making,” he said.

Australian MP Dave Sharma, a former diplomat also told the state broadcaster he was surprised by the picture and could not imagine and Australian leader taking part in a similar practice.

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