China on Thursday defended its ambassador to Kiribati after photographs emerged showing him walking on local people’s backs as part of a welcoming ceremony, insisting it was culturally appropriate to the Pacific Island nation.

Photographs and videos of the event ricocheted around the internet, attracting criticism, with one Twitter user describing it as “disturbing” and another saying it was “emblematic of what China does with debtors”.

Photo: Michael Field via Twitter.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman hit back over the ceremony, which came as Ambassador Tang Songgen made his first visit after China and Kiribati established diplomatic relations.

“At the kind request of the local government and people, and out of respect to Kiribati’s culture and customs, Ambassador Tang finally agreed to accept, attending a welcoming ceremony involving local folk customs upon arrival,” said foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

Zhao said the custom of walking on people’s backs was “the most grand traditional welcoming ceremony on the island” and had been used by other visiting officials including an Australian official in 1998.

Zhao said some people had criticised the photos out of “political motives”. 

“Some Australians, despite knowing that Kiribati’s islands have their unique customs, deliberately slandered and smeared China,” he said.

“We fully respect local customs and culture when interacting with the Pacific countries. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

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