A photo showing the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati arriving at the tiny Pacific island nation has sparked backlash after it emerged online following the official’s visit.
The now viral image shows Ambassador Tang Songgen appearing to walk on the backs of boys and young men in a welcome ceremony, and has reignited debate about the influence of China in the region.
In the photo, the row of young men who are lying face down provide a proverbial red carpet for the Chinese official – one made of human bodies.
The image has been shared widely on social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, leading to discussions about the cultural underpinnings of the welcome ceremony, with those who supported it saying the photo represents a cultural practice that is being taken out of context by Westerners.
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 appears.
“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.”
Photo causes stir on social media
The photo was posted online on Sunday afternoon by New Zealand-based Pacific journalist Michael Field.
“A rather striking picture has come out from Kiribati causing drama on its social media,” he wrote on Facebook.
“Variations of this custom occur around the Pacific - most notably in Tonga - but in the 21st Century it is rather odd. And why the ambassador took part in such a colonial custom is a mystery.”
The image has been used by critics of the Chinese Communist Party to fan the flames of outrage.
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 (or any adult for that matter!) Yet here we are thanks to China’s ambassador to Kiribati,” he posted on Twitter, along with the image.
Many others were also quick to criticise.
Picture from Kiribati showing new Chinese Ambassador Tang Songgen welcomed off plane. Children lie face down on ground as the ambassador walks across them.— Drew Pavlou 柏乐志 (@DrewPavlou) August 18, 2020
China is an imperialist state intent on colonizing the world. pic.twitter.com/rEJIjhwIdd
‘Everyone should be less hysterical’
Speaking to The Guardian, Prof Teaiwa said critics should not project their own values on Pacific island nations and seek to understand the cultural framework around the picture.
“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 said.
Kiribati's Minister for Environment Ruateki Tekaiara was on the island during the visit by the Chinese ambassador and said the ritual was about showing the ultimate respect to a visitor, the ABC reported.
“This is the culture from the island ... no one can oppose this when the elders decide,” he said.
Although some on the island weren’t happy about seeing the ceremony used for the arrival of the Chinese official.
Freelance journalist in Kiribati, Rimon Rimon, told the ABC that some locals were very unsupportive of the welcoming seen in the picture.
“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.”
Growing concerns over China’s influence in the Pacific
Despite the confused uproar over the photo, the images has served to once again draw attention to China’s growing influence in the Pacific region.
The visit from the Chiness ambassador Tang Songgen comes less than a year after Kiribati cut ties with Taiwan and switched diplomatic allegiance to China. China claims Taiwan as its territory and claims it has no right to diplomatic recognition from other nations.
The move by Kiribati came hot on the heels of the same decision by the Solomon Islands, prompting a top Chinese diplomat to say in September that the time was almost up for the rest of Taiwan’s friends.
During the pandemic, Beijing has ramped up its diplomatic push into the Pacific, pledging coronavirus aid and medical advice to the poorer island nations.
China and the US have been particularly keen to strengthen regional relationships with countries that control strategic waterways between the Americas and Asia, while Australia has worked to thwart some of China’s regional overtures.
Australia is the region’s biggest aid donor but Pacific Islands have turned to China in recent years for budget assistance and potential infrastructure spending amid concerns from Western nations that China is using debt to exert influence in the region.
Last month, Tonga was forced to ask Beijing to restructure its large bilateral debt load as an onerous Chinese loan repayment schedule loomed.
Do you have a story tip? Email: email@example.com.