Photo of Chinese ambassador walking on backs of Kiribati people sparks debate

Some link ritual to China's growing influence in region, others argue it is simply tradition

Chinese ambassador Tang Songgen pictured walking on backs of locals in Kiribati. (Twitter, Michael Field photo)

Chinese ambassador Tang Songgen pictured walking on backs of locals in Kiribati. (Twitter, Michael Field photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The photo of a Chinese ambassador walking on the backs of people lying in a row in Kiribati, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China last year, has sparked heated debate.

In the photo, China’s ambassador to the pacific island state, Tang Songgen, can be seen stepping on the backs of locals as they lay on the ground. He followed the human path with the help of two women in traditional costume during a welcoming ceremony.

Locals said the practice is a Kiribati tradition, though it is usually performed at weddings, Australian media ABC reported.

The ritual was held on Marakei Island to welcome the Chinese ambassador, who had visited the island’s cultural and religious facilities as well as schools earlier this year, the report said. Kiribati's Minister for Environment Ruateki Tekaiara said the ceremony had been organized by elders to express the highest respect and love to the visitor.

Ambassadors from the archipelago’s former ally of Taiwan are not believed to have experienced the ritual on any occasion. The image has triggered mixed reactions among foreign diplomats and politicians.

“I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behavior by an ambassador of any country (or any adult for that matter!)” tweeted Constantine Panayiotou, U.S. defense attaché to five Pacific Island nations, including Kiribati. “Yet here we are thanks to #China’s ambassador to Kiribati.”

Dave Sharma, an Australian parliamentarian who was formerly assigned as a diplomat to Australia’s mission in Papua New Guinea, expressed surprise over the practice. “I’d be very surprised if an Australian representative participated in such a ceremony of this nature,” he said.

The image has also triggered a debate on social media. Some have argued the practice reflects China’s growing influence in the Pacific region, while others have criticized the use of children in the ritual as abuse.

Kiribati severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in September 2019, less than one week after another Pacific island ally of Taiwan, the Solomon Islands, switched ties to China. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) complained at the time that Beijing had promised the Kiribati government funds for the procurement of several airplanes and commercial ferries — something the Taiwanese government had previously refused to do.

Kiribati citizens have also reportedly mixed feelings about the image. While some have said the ritual is a cultural tradition and that to link the practice to geopolitics is to view it out of context, others consider it inappropriate.

“The Marakei people can welcome dignitaries any way they like, it’s well known they follow many of the customs of their land,” tweeted Katerina Teaiwa, an associate professor specializing in Asian and Pacific affairs at the Australian National University. She added that people should respect the cultural practices of Pacific islanders instead of being frantic about them.