China hits back over Kiribati criticisms, points to Australia

China has hit back at criticisms of a Chinese diplomat photographed walking on the back of students, saying the cultural welcome was also accorded to a visiting Australian diplomat in 1998.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, in response to a question on the issue from international wire service Agence France-Presse, said the Australian High Commissioner to Kiribati was accorded the same cultural welcome when he visited the island in 1998.

“Back in 1998, when the then Australian high commissioner to Kiribati visited the island, local people welcomed him with the same ceremony,” he said while also blaming Australian activist Drew Pavlou.

“The Kiribati side is infuriated that some Australians smeared China and deliberately omitted their knowledge of the unique customs on each island of Kiribati. 

“As for the reports you mentioned, among those releasing the photo is Drew Pavlou, who has been pursuing an anti-China agenda out of political motivations.”

Mr. Lijian added that the decision to offer the traditional form of welcome to the Chinese Ambassador to Kiribati, Tang Songgen, was made jointly by the Kiribati council of elders, island council and the local church.

“Different countries have different traditional customs. As Marakei Island MPs, Kiribati's minister for agriculture and others have explained, the pictured welcoming ritual with the most humble posture is a traditional way to pay the highest respect to distinguished visitors, which has been passed down from generation to generation on the island. 

“It was the joint decision by the council of elders, the island council and the local church to welcome Ambassador Tang with this ceremony.”

The visit to the Kiribati island was the first by a Chinese ambassador since the resumption of diplomatic relations, emphasised Mr Lijian, who added that the ambassador accepted the invitation to walk on the backs of children lying face down on the airport tarmac “out of respect for the local culture and customs.”

“This is the first visit by a Chinese ambassador after the two countries resumed diplomatic relations in September 2019. The local government and people received the ambassador with a warm welcome,” he further reiterated. 

“Out of respect for the local culture and customs, Ambassador Tang eventually accepted and attended the traditional welcoming ceremony the gracious host insisted on. 

“Many people on the Marakei Island expressed their firm support for the resumption of ties when interacting with Ambassador Tang. This illustrates the fact that resumption of relations is an irresistible trend with popular support.”

China believes that all nations are equal regardless of size, Mr Lijian emphasised and in the Pacific the local culture and customs of the different nations are respected.

I'm sure you've noticed that many in Kiribati and other Pacific Island countries have spoken up on social media to appreciate the Chinese ambassador's respect for the local customs and condemn the few people who deliberately misrepresent local culture and attempt to sow discord between China and Kiribati.”

Kiribati switched diplomatic relations to China from Taiwan in September last year. 

The circulation of the picture taken last week that showed the Chinese Ambassador walking on the backs of children drew widespread condemnation. 

Among the critics was former Australian diplomat-turned-politician Dave Sharma, who reportedly told the ABC that he would be “very surprised” if an Australian participated in a similar ceremony. 

"I'd be very surprised if an Australian representative participated in such a ceremony of this nature," he told the ABC.

The ABC also reported an angry response on Twitter from Constantine Panayiotou, the U.S. defence attache to five Pacific Islands including Kiribati.

“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!) Yet here we are thanks to #China’s ambassador to Kiribati,” he tweeted.

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