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Island welcoming tradition ignites geopolitical debate

Wednesday 19 August 2020 | Written by Gray Clapham | Published in Small World

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What began as an off the cuff posting of a blurry image on social media has led to full blown debate on colonialism and China’s rising influence in the Pacific.

A photo showing the newly-appointed Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on men’s backs in an outer island welcome ceremony has not only gone viral — but also reignited the geopolitical debate about China’s rising influence in the Pacific.

Ambassador Tang Songgen took up the post earlier this year, months after Kiribati controversially switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

The photo ignited debate within Kiribati, as those who supported it said it was a cultural practice that had been taken out of context. It’s also led to several senior foreign diplomats and politicians weighing in on the subject.

After the photo was posted to Facebook groups and on Twitter, hundreds of social media users tried to explain what was happening in the controversial image.

It shows about 30 men lying on their stomachs on an airstrip next to a small aircraft.

Tang is pictured walking on their backs, as two women on either side of him hold his hands to steady him.

The ritual was held on Marakei Island in Kiribati, as part of a welcoming ceremony for the ambassador.

Kiribati’s Minister for Environment Ruateki Tekaiara who was on the island when Tang visited said the pictured ritual was a way to show the highest respect and love to a visitor.

“This is the culture from the island . No-one can oppose this when the elders decide,” Tekiaiara, who is also a local MP for Marakei Island, said.

Rae Bainteiti – an i-Kiribati man living in New Zealand, whose grandmother is from Marakei Island –said he did not have an issue with what was depicted but said he understood why there had been a backlash.

“When I first saw the post on Facebook, one of my immediate comments was what a beautiful Kiribati culture,” he said.

“It might be misinterpreted by other people depending how they see it because the initial poster did not put background information or context into what was happening at the time.”

Bainteiti said he had seen that particular cultural practice as a child at family weddings – an explanation given by several others.

Rimon Rimon, who is a freelance journalist in Kiribati, said some locals were not happy with what they saw.

“People are angry, some are upset and embarrassed,” he said.

The photo has emerged while there are still fresh feelings in the country over last year’s switch in allegiance to China.

Rimon, who worked with Kiribati’s former president, Anote Tong, said he had never witnessed a Taiwanese ambassador welcomed in the same way during his time in politics.

“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.

But Bainteiti said the viewpoint of the people from Marakei Island was the one that mattered most.

“The global audience having that opinion — which is tied to politics, which is tied to Taiwan and China — but if you stand in the point of being neutral and put the cultural lens on it will help you understand what is going on,” he said.

“I feel it was done out of love and respect to offer that cultural way of saying, ‘you are welcome on our island’.”