KIRIBATI -- Photographs and videos of China's ambassador to a small Pacific island nation ricocheted around the internet this week, attracting widespread criticism, with social media users describing them as "disturbing" and "emblematic of what China does with debtors".
Chinese Ambassador Tang Songgen visited the island nation of Kiribati earlier this month, and a photograph taken of his arrival shows the ambassador walking along the backs of young men who had lain on the ground in front of him.
"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," said the US defence attache to the island nation, Commander Constantine Panayiotou, on Twitter.
The image is emblematic of Beijing's overarching influence in the nation, argue many.
Last September, the Kiribati government suddenly switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei, Taiwan, to Beijing amid increasing investment and influence from China.
There are also increasing worries that Kiribati will bow to Beijing's request to build a naval base on one of its islands, furthering expansionist Chinese plans.
The Chinese regime Thursday (August 20) defended its ambassador, insisting the ceremony was culturally appropriate to the Pacific island nation.
The current Australian high commissioner, Bruce Cowled, has not participated in any similar ceremony, said the head of Australia's Office of the Pacific, which is very familiar with the island customs, on Tuesday (August 18).
Debtor nations look on
The striking image is not sitting well with citizens around the world living in countries under Beijing's influence.
In Central Asia, anti-China sentiment is rising steadily because of Beijing's pursuit of economic and geopolitical goals at the expense of local communities.
While Central Asia continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken an incalculable political, economic, social and health toll, China's economy appears to have recovered significantly from the pandemic, and a number of signs -- including recent pictures of Chinese partying in Wuhan, the birthplace of COVID-19, without masks or worries of social distancing -- suggest Beijing is already moving on from the crisis.
This imbalance has created a situation in which an empowered China is able to exploit countries in Central Asia that have been made more vulnerable by the pandemic, and observers say Beijing is doing just that.