Chinese ambassador to Kiribati pictured walking across the backs of people in welcoming ceremony


A photo reportedly showing the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on peoples' backs in a welcome ceremony has not only gone viral — but also reignited the geopolitical debate about China's rising influence in the Pacific.

Ambassador Tang Songgen took up the post earlier this year, months after Kiribati controversially switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

It's that fact that has led to several senior foreign diplomats and politicians, including some here in Australia, weighing in on the subject.

The photo also ignited debate within Kiribati, as those who supported it said it was a cultural practice that had been taken out of context.

After the photo was posted to Facebook groups and on Twitter, hundreds of social media users tried to explain what was happening in the controversial image.

It shows about 30 people, who appear to be males, lying on their stomachs in a field next to a small aircraft.

A man who is said to be Mr Tang is walking on their backs, as two women on either side of him hold his hands to steady him.

It is said to be on the small island of Marakei in Kiribati, which the ABC has not been able to independently verify, as part of a welcoming ceremony for the ambassador.

The photo appeared over the weekend but it was unclear who took it or initially posted it on social media.

'It might be misinterpreted'
Rae Bainteiti is an i-Kiribati man living in New Zealand, whose grandmother is from from Marakei Island.

He did not have an issue with what was depicted but said he understood why there had been a backlash.

"When I first saw the post on Facebook, one of my immediate comments was what a beautiful Kiribati culture," he said.

"It might be misinterpreted by other people depending 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.

"Particularly the groom's side lay on the floor to allow the in-laws to walk on them to show that they are happy and welcome them to be part of the family," he said.

Not everyone feels the same about the photo
Rimon 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
Wentworth MP Dave Sharma, a former Ambassador to Israel, who also served overseas in senior roles at Australian diplomatic missions including in Papua New Guinea, was surprised at the image.

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

Constantine Panayiotou, the US defence attache to five Pacific Islands including Kiribati, took to Twitter to express outrage.

The ABC has approached local elders on the island, the Kiribati Government and the Chinese embassy in Kiribati for comment, but has not received a response.


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