China hits out at Australia in response to Kiribati photo controversy

China has strongly defended a viral photo of its ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of children as its state media lambasts Australia over its reaction to the striking image.

The photo shows Ambassador Tang Songgen walking on the backs of boys and young men in a welcome ceremony on the Pacific nation’s Marakei island earlier this month.

The image quickly spread online and has reignited debate about the growing influence of China in the region.

There was anger over the image, including from Liberal MP Dave Sharma who questioned: “Is this for real?”

US Defense Attaché in the Pacific Islands, Commander Constantine Panayiotou, was among those to deplore the optics of the welcoming ceremony.

“I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behaviour by an ambassador of any country,” he said online.

Yet on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters the welcoming hosts insisted on the ceremony and that it was a long-standing and “traditional way to pay the highest respect to distinguished visitors”.

Mr Zhao noted Australia is well aware of the custom, having been the recipient of it in earlier years.

“Back in 1998, when the then Australian high commissioner to Kiribati visited the island, local people welcomed him with the same ceremony. The Kiribati side is infuriated that some Australians smeared China and deliberately omitted their knowledge of the unique customs on each island of Kiribati,” he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian hit out at those in Australia trying to smear China's growing relations in the Pacific.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian hit out at those in Australia trying to smear China's growing relations in the Pacific. Source: FMPRC

Welcome rarely granted to ‘former colonial masters’

The Global Times, the outspoken mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China and renowned critic of Australia in recent months, took aim once again on Thursday.

Paraphrasing chief research fellow at the Research Center for Pacific Island Countries at Liaocheng University, Yu Lei, the Global Times explained Australia was angered by the growing relationship between China and other Pacific nations.

“Australia has long regarded the South Pacific islands as their ‘backyard’, and a warm welcome to the Chinese Ambassador is clearly not something they wish for, because the island countries are seldom so friendly toward former colonial masters from the West,” it said.

Mr Tang has responded to the resulting furore, also insisting the welcome was a “traditional courtesy”.

Mr Zhao went on to note the online response from those accustomed to the practice and insisted any smear campaign against China’s policy with South Pacific islands would ultimately fail.

“I'm sure you've noticed that many in Kiribati and other Pacific Island countries have spoken up on social media to appreciate the Chinese ambassador's respect for the local customs and condemn the few people who deliberately misrepresent local culture and attempt to sow discord between China and Kiribati,” he said.

Katerina Teaiwa, Associate Professor in Pacific Studies at the Australian National University, was among those who said the image was not as shocking as it first appeared.

“This is mainly seen at weddings but not all islands. Usually it’s bride and groom walking,” she wrote online.

“Yes, the symbolism is potent and one could talk about child labour, colonisation, aid, marriage and divorce but Marakei was probably trying something extra customary to show honour and hospitality.”

Tongan woman Josephine Latu shared a selection of photos on Twitter of other traditional welcomes, including an image of former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard hoisted on the shoulders of Cook Islanders.

“I don’t think we need to explain our customs, so let’s just say cultural context is key,” she said.

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