Some say the islanders of the remote Pacific state of Kiribati were willing doormats; others thought that the new Chinese ambassador should not have indulged himself in the human equivalent of the red-carpet treatment.
Either way, images of the recently arrived envoy and his staff stepping on the backs of prostrate islanders have ignited a fierce debate about China’s “colonial” ambitions in the region.
The ambassador, Tang Songgen, took up his post in the Pacific nation in March, six months after Kiribati severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and re-established relations with China.
The photograph, posted online on Sunday by Michael Field, a New Zealander journalist in the region, showed the diplomat and his team walking over the unusual welcoming party of about 30 locals on the island of Marakei, about 40 miles north of Kiribati’s capital on Tarawa atoll. He is helped to balance on the walk by two local women in traditional dress, each holding a hand.
“Children — seemingly all boys — are lying face down on the ground and the ambassador is walking across them,” Mr Field wrote.
“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.”
He pointed out the irony of the Kiribati national anthem Teirake Kaini Kiribati, which translates as “Stand up Kiribati”.
Beijing’s strategic rivals, some of whom have been accused of using loans to impoverished Pacific nations to create “debt colonies”, criticised the welcome.
“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,” the United States’s defence attaché to Kiribati, Commander Constantine Panayiotou, tweeted.
Dave Sharma, a former diplomat and Australian MP, expressed disquiet over the image, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “I’d be very surprised if an Australian representative participated in such a ceremony of this nature.”
Rimon Rimon, a Kiribati adviser who worked with the nation’s former president, Anote Tong, said many local people were unhappy with the image, taken from a video of the Chinese ambassador’s visit to the island this month. “People are angry, some are upset and embarrassed,” he said in an online post.
Mr Rimon said he had never witnessed a Taiwanese ambassador to Kiribati welcomed in the same way and that there had been dissent over the switch of allegiance to China last September, which has led to Beijing reopening its embassy — Kiribati’s largest building. Kiribati maintained diplomatic relations with China until 2003 when the island nation switched relations to Taiwan.
Until the switch, China not only maintained its embassy there but also operated a large satellite tracking station. It has been claimed that it monitored the US missile range in the nearby Marshall Islands.
Ruateki Tekaiara, Kiribati’s environment minister, who was on the island for Mr Tang’s visit, said the ambassador was there to learn about the local culture and view schools and churches.
Mr Tekaiara, who is also the MP for Marakei island, said the pictured ritual was a traditional way to show the highest respect and love to a visitor. “It is a very special culture . . . and unique,” he said.