A photo, recently uploaded on social media showed that the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati after arriving at the tiny island nation was walking on the backs of boys and young men in a welcome ceremony. The viral image of ambassador Tang Songgen has sparked debate about the influence of China in the region.
In the image, the young men and boys can be seen lying face down on the ground. The Chinese ambassador can be seen holding the hands of two women in traditional dress while walking on the human red carpet. After the image was shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, some observers strongly criticized such practice, some have argued that it is their tradition and that the image has been misinterpreted.
The image was first posted by New Zealand-based Pacific journalist Michael Field, who wrote on Facebook that "A rather striking picture has come out from Kiribati causing drama on its social media." He also said the "variations of this custom occur around the Pacific" mostly in Tonga but in this century, it is "rather odd." Why the Chinese ambassador took part in such custom "is a mystery," Field added.
Katerina Teaiwa, an Associate Professor in Pacific Studies at the Australian National University said the photo was not as shocking as it first appeared. She wrote on Twitter, "This is mainly seen at weddings but not all islands. Usually, it's the bride and groom walking."
"Yes, the symbolism is potent and one could talk about child labor, colonization, aid, marriage, and divorce but Marakei was probably trying something extra customary to show honor and hospitality," she added.
The controversial image has been used by critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to fuel online outrage. The U.S. Defense Attaché in the Pacific Islands, Commander Constantine Panayiotou was among those people who strongly criticized such actions by the Chinese official.
Along with the image on Twitter, he wrote, "I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behavior by ambassador of any country (or any adult in that matter!). Yet here we are thanks to China's ambassador to Kiribati."
No Need to Criticize a Cultural Framework
As reported by The Guardian, Prof Teaiwa said critics should not project their own values on island nations and seek to understand cultural framework around the viral image. While talking about the natives of Kiribati, she said that the Marakei people can welcome dignitaries any way they like and it is not unknown that these people follow many of their own 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," Prof Teaiwa added.
Ruateki Tekaiara, the Minister of Environment in Kiribati was on the island when ambassador Songgen arrived. As per ABC, he said the welcoming ritual was about showing the ultimate respect to a visitor and added that it "is the culture from the island ... no one can oppose this when the elders decide."
However, Rimon Rimon, a freelance journalist on the island told ABC that some of the local residents weren't happy about seeing the welcoming ceremony depicted in the picture. He said many of them were angry, while some were upset and left embarrassed. Rimon also added that "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."
Songgen posted about his visit on the embassy's Facebook page and said those were educational visits for the Embassy team to learn Kiribati's "culture and tradition."
The post also added that "The Embassy team was warmly welcomed and received in those islands by the old men, the island councils as well as the local people. We were greeted in traditional courtesies, invited to local Maneaba ceremonies, where the whole team was overwhelmed by the unique culture and hospitality"