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Chinese ambassador walked on young men’s backs in Kiribati custom

A photo in a screenshot posted on Facebook shows a line of more than 30 young people lying on their stomachs on what seems to be a makeshift airfield. As a crowd looks on, a man supported by two women walks across the youngsters’ backs.

“Chinese ambassador arriving in Kiribati, which has recently cut off its diplomatic relation with Taiwan,” text in the screenshot reads. “Black children formed a carpet to let the Chinese ambassador walk on.”

The screenshot has been viewed more than 1.7 million times since it was posted on 17 August 2020. And Facebook’s fact-checking system has flagged it as possibly false. 

What’s going on here? We checked. 

Local custom typically performed at weddings

Kiribati is a country of 33 small islands in the central Pacific Ocean. Its population of about 120,000 people is mainly Micronesian.

A reverse image search reveals that the photo is genuine. It has not been altered, and appears to show a recent incident in Kiribati.

On 17 August the New York Times published the photo in a news analysis headlined “Why did a Chinese diplomat walk all over people on a Pacific island?

The caption reads: “A photo reportedly showing Tang Songgen, the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati, walking on people’s backs as part of a welcome ceremony in the Pacific island nation this month.”

The paper says the photo went viral after it was condemned by US and Australian officials who criticised it for reinforcing Chinese colonialism. 

But the UK Guardian argues that the incident is in line with Kiribati’s customs. The “human carpet” was reportedly made up of young men – not children – and is typically performed during weddings. 

And it is considered offensive to refuse the gesture. 

The Vietnam Times reports that people in Kiribati defended the practice after the online outrage.

“This is our island’s show of respect for guests,” the paper quotes one Adlih Ztuhcs as saying online. “If a foreigner marries into a family the men would lie down as a way of welcome.

“As for the women, the men will carry her on her shoulders to her destination. The same form of welcoming is afforded to all and is seen during weddings and first-time visits. Let’s not manipulate facts to suit our stories.”

There is no evidence that the incident was related to China’s relationship with Taiwan.

A recent photo of a Chinese ambassador walking on the backs of Micronesian people in Kiribati is genuine. But the people were young men, not children, and locals have defended the practice as a custom that would be offensive to refuse. – Naledi Mashishi


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