The controversial picture has sparked debate online. Picture: Twitter.
The controversial picture has sparked debate online. Picture: Twitter.

China’s swipe at Aus over pic outrage

China has responded to a controversial photo of its ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of locals, which 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 picture by South Pacific journalist Michael Field drew widespread criticism, including from Australian MP and former diplomat Dave Sharma, who told the ABC he was surprised by the picture and could not imagine an Australian leader taking part in a similar practice.

Mr Tang has responded to the photo controversy in a statement, saying China's embassy team was "greeted with traditional courtesies" in Kiribati and "was overwhelmed by the unique culture and hospitality".

China's Global Times newspaper reported that walking over people's backs was "a way for locals to show the highest respect for a visitor or a diplomat" in Kiribati and took aim at western countries, especially Australia, for suggesting otherwise.

"Portraying the welcome ceremony as being symbolic of 'subjugation' reflects some Western politicians' grievances and concerns over the growing friendship between China and Kiribati," the Global Times report read.

"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."

The scene of Mr Tang walking on people's backs attracted widespread criticism when the photo emerged.

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 low lying islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Kiribati’s low lying islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

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.

 

 

Originally published as China's swipe at Aus over pic outrage



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