China is investing billions in Cambodia’s economy, outspending even the Kingdom’s national budget. But as more and more Cambodians raise fears of crime, corruption and colonial ambition, could rising public resentment lead the nation back to its dark days of racially motivated violence?
Last month, as families across Cambodia left their hometowns behind to mark the close of the Kingdom’s three-day festival of the dead, a Chinese man armed with local military license plates pressed his boot to the pedal of his Lexus, careened wildly off the road and rammed into the red-brick US-Cambodia Friendship Monument on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. As metaphors go, they don’t come much more obvious: This was the China that Cambodians feared, shielded by wealth and cosy ties with the Cambodian authorities, marking their territory in the lands left behind by the retreating West.
But something has to give. You see it in the comment threads below Facebook posts sharing stories of bag snatchers and brothel owners in Sihanoukville: “This is what happens when you let them in,” you read. “They are so fucking sick bloody Chinese.” You see it in the tourist hub of Siem Reap as a tuk-tuk driver spits into the dirt while watching Chinese tourists clamber into a bus scrawled with Chinese script: He tells you that people like them have come here to drive him and his people out of business. You see it in an air-conditioned office in central Phnom Penh in the way a white-collar worker clicks his tongue as his smartphone plays footage of an armed bank robbery just a few blocks away. “Chinese,” he says. You can’t make out the men’s faces.
Cambodian political analyst Meas Nee is one observer who has witnessed a rising unease among his countrymen with a rate of development that critics say is putting the interests of wealthy Chinese investors – and the government that backs them – above those of Cambodia’s citizens.
“I think you can see this over the last Pchum Ben, where not many Cambodians travelled to Sihanoukville,” he said, referring to last month’s three-day festival of the dead. “I’m not saying they hate Chinese, but they just don’t go there, they don’t like Kampong Som [Sihanoukville] at this stage – and I think it’s because a lot of news has been circulated on the level of crime and the behaviour of the Chinese. There’s also been a lot of cases where the local people have been alienated from their shop, their land, and this has just made people become so resentful.”
These concerns are not baseless. Figures released by Cambodia’s National Police declared that out of the 378 foreigners arrested in the first six months of this year, an overwhelming 257 were Chinese nationals. And in August, up to 50 Chinese nationals were detained in a wide-reaching crackdown on a prostitution ring based in the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
There are also grounds for the fear that much of Chinese investment in the nation’s raging construction boom is coming at the expense of poor Cambodians. As Cambodia’s cities shift and change beneath sheets of green netting, Chinese money accounts for roughly a third of the capital investment poured into the Kingdom’s construction and real estate sector. By the end of the year, it is estimated that as many as 15,688 luxury housing units will have been built in the capital city of Phnom Penh in 2018 – almost four times as many as last year. Fuelled by profit and the promise of an influx of wealthy Chinese immigrants, it is a trend that threatens to see ordinary Cambodians driven to the outskirts of their own cities as their wealthy countrymen rub shoulders with a new generation of Chinese businessmen in sky-high condominiums.
Heng Pheakdey, the founder of sustainable development think tank Enrich Institute, said the reams of cash flowing into Cambodia from China inevitably wind up in the hands of the Kingdom’s propertied classes.
“The price of everything, land and housing, has skyrocketed since the influx of the Chinese,” he said. “They spoil the market price – the rich Chinese people are willing to pay triple or quadruple the market price, and I believe that has increased the cost of living quite a lot for the local people, especially the poor and vulnerable, who are the ones who suffer the most. People who have land, who have houses to rent, can benefit significantly from the increasing Chinese investment, but the benefits, again, have not been shared by the underprivileged group of people.”
Here, we find the story so often missed in the relentless churn of Western warnings of China’s increasingly assertive investment in the Kingdom: that for all the sensationalist talk of China’s ascendant empire, it is the local elites of Cambodia – and the government they support – who have the most to gain by selling their people short.
Ear Sophal, a Cambodian political scientist and the author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World, said the recent surge in Chinese immigration played upon deep-rooted fears of infiltration and invasion that has been a recurring nightmare throughout Cambodia’s history.
“Cambodians are becoming alarmed, and it’s not hard to see why,” he said. “It’s not fear of small numbers of Chinese, it’s fear of large numbers of Chinese. Two hundred thousand Chinese now are legally living in Cambodia by the authorities’ own admission – God knows how many are undocumented. The knock-on effects of their presence has caused much consternation and resentment.”
Cambodia is certainly no stranger to Chinese immigration. For centuries, the Kingdom has seen enclaves of traders from China’s Teochew, Hainan and Hakka peoples settling in cities and rice fields alike since before the time of Yuan dynasty ambassador Zhou Daguan’s famous visit at the height of the Angkor era.
In 1975, when the ultranationalist Khmer Rouge forces stormed the capital of Phnom Penh, they found more than a third of its inhabitants were members of the nation’s flourishing ethnic Chinese community. Mistrusted for their race and assumed riches, these ethnic Chinese were among the first to be purged under Pol Pot’s purification of the country’s urban elite despite the regime relying heavily on Chinese funding – a persecution that would continue under the Vietnamese occupation of the Kingdom as Cold War rivalries continued to rip the nation to shreds.
Chheang Vannarith, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute of Strategic Studies and the author of The Political Economy of Chinese Investment in Cambodia, said the new wave of Chinese workers are a different breed from the generations of immigrants who came before them.
“The modern Chinese migrant workers now are different from the old Chinese back in the 19th and 20th centuries, [who] adapted and integrated themselves into society,” he said. “But the modern Chinese immigration that has taken place after 2000, after China joined the World Trade Organisation and started to rise, these new migrants don’t really try to adapt themselves to the local community. They don’t bother studying local languages, learning local values or history. So this leads to an identity clash between the new Chinese migrants and Cambodians, because the Cambodian people are proud of their culture – they’re proud of their history and identity.”
Equally condemned are those from the mainland who have poured into the Kingdom as both governments push to convert Cambodia’s coastline into a more affordable Macau. Cambodia received more than 1.2 million tourists from China in the first eight months of the year, according to Ministry of Tourism figures released last month – an increase of more than 10% on the same period last year. Foreign arrivals for tourists from every other country fell during that time, with Chinese arrivals now making up almost a third of all tourists in the Kingdom, more than doubling the number of arrivals from neighbouring Vietnam. For many working in the country’s crucial tourism sector – who accuse Chinese arrivals of taking work away from locals by pouring their money into Chinese-owned hotels, tour companies, stores and restaurants – it has been a dispiriting trend.
Sihanoukville’s rebirth as a casino town on the coast has been less than smooth. Hun Sen’s Cambodia author Sebastian Strangio, who travelled through Sihanoukville in September, told Southeast Asia Globe that he had been struck by how unhappy the locals were with the city’s changing tourist climate – although he was quick to add that the Western backpackers and Russian gangsters who once reigned supreme had always brought out the worst in the seaside city.
“What you have in Sihanoukville is a particularly low quality of tourist,” he said. “You have people that come to gamble, that come to seek out prostitutes. You go to Sihanoukville and you see groups of young men that look really rough around the edges. They’re gamblers, they’re people who are doing something that’s illegal in mainland China, and it’s got a sleazy edge to it. Gambling always does.”
According to Sophal, the spectre of violence against the growing Chinese community is not something the Cambodian government could ignore.
“Targeting members of the Chinese community is bound to happen as disputes arise – and it’s surprising that there hasn’t been more,” he said. “Of course it’s not at all an acceptable approach. The authorities should take the lead on reducing the knock-on effects of mass migration and housing disruption, but are of course too busy counting their money and kowtowing to the Chinese. Localised in places like Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, and in Phnom Penh via Diamond Island and other places, the narrative here isn’t about economic performance – which hasn’t yet tanked – but of dispossession and being made the ‘other’ in your own country.”
For all the sensationalist talk of China’s ascendant empire, it is the local elites of Cambodia – and the government they support – who have the most to gain by selling their people short
For analyst Nee, though, the apparent impunity with which many companies were able to conduct their business in the Kingdom was not the only thing stirring up resentment towards the nation that has taken the lead in bankrolling Cambodia’s rapid economic development.
“I think the anti-Chinese [feeling] is not necessarily only directed towards the investment of the Chinese companies in Cambodia alone,” he said. “I think the anti-Chinese [feeling] could also be linked to the current political tension in Cambodia, where the supporters of the opposition are not happy with the ruling party kicking out the US and grabbing China as a strong supporter. So I think the anti-Chinese [sentiment] doesn’t only refer to the investment and funding that China provides but the shift in the relationship between the Cambodian government and the Chinese.”
Nee argued that Cambodia’s frosty relationship with the West following more than a year of political crackdowns and what Western leaders have slammed as a sham election has left Cambodia all too reliant on the political and economic support of China, which managed to invest more money in the country over the past five years than the Cambodian government did.
These geopolitical struggles come with a human cost. Fuelled by the Cambodian government’s close ties with the Vietnamese regime that raised it to power, Cambodia has seen vicious attacks against the Vietnamese ethnic minority since the early 1990s as elements among the political opposition fed long-held fears of silent invasion. And just 15 years ago, Thai businesses across the capital were set upon by furious Cambodian mobs incensed by competing claims to a temple on the two nations’ border.
Despite Cambodia’s history of violence against ethnic minorities, though, Strangio argued that it was too soon to compare the rising anti-Chinese feeling to the bloodshed unleashed against the nation’s ethnic Thai and Vietnamese peoples in the past.
“While I’ve heard a lot of concerns down in Sihanoukville from ordinary people, there wasn’t this sense that the Chinese inherently represented something bad,” he said. “It was mostly people concerned about the specifics of the situation, which is that Chinese are coming in and renting businesses and Chinese tourists were essentially preferring to deal with Chinese-owned businesses – and the job opportunities for ordinary people have dried up, costs have risen, people have been driven to the edge of the city.”
For think-tank founder and author Vannarith, it is this sense of alienation that could drive Cambodia into the same racially charged violence that has taken root in other nations across Southeast Asia.
“Cambodia doesn’t have anti-China nationalism – yet,” he said. “It may form, but it takes time. But if the trend continues over the long term, it may lead to social clashes similar to what happened in Indonesia – Indonesia does not have territorial disputes or sovereignty disputes with China, but anti-Chinese sentiment during the Suharto time was quite severe. If they don’t take measures to prevent it from happening, if the situation continues like this over the next ten years, it may erupt into violence.”
It is a warning that the government appears to be taking to heart, with Interior Minister Sar Kheng announcing the creation of a special task force dedicated to rooting out Chinese criminal activities in Sihanoukville. But simply shutting down a few brothels along the nation’s coast may not be enough to assuage growing fears that the government has already put the country up for sale.
Nee argued that Cambodia’s government had painted itself into a corner by so thoroughly rejecting Western demands for liberal democracy in the Kingdom, leaving it unable to risk ruining its relationship with the more powerful Chinese government.
“In this case, the Cambodian government appears to have no choice,” he said. “If they continue to link to the Western world, they have to apply the formal standards of democracy and respect for human rights. The Cambodian government is facing a lot of pressure at home as well. Besides rushing to connect with the Chinese, back home the Cambodian government has failed to respect their system – and their enforcement of the rule of law in many areas has failed as well.”
According to the Enrich Institute’s Pheakdey, the government’s first responsibility lay in ensuring that Chinese developments in the Kingdom don’t come so heavily at the expense of the local population.
“One thing that the government can do is to make sure that any Chinese investment will contribute to the local development – so there might be mechanisms that require investments to come up with a careful study before they construct anything to make sure there are no social, environmental and economic impacts on the local level, and if there is, there must be a compensation mechanism for the local people who are affected to recover what they’ve lost – and to help with their suffering,” he said. “But at the moment, this has not been taken into serious consideration.”
Sophal argued that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government had every opportunity to renegotiate China’s investment in Cambodia on its own terms – as long as it was willing to put its own people ahead of personal profit.
“Look at what Malaysia has done now under [Prime Minister] Mahathir [Mohamad],” he said. “Cancel some projects that truly are egregious. The authorities need to show that they aren’t just rubber stamps for Chinese investment, that they do see some excesses and need to pull back on all the borrowing. Cambodia is a small country that can easily be influenced by a few billion dollars, which is why China sees the value proposition of Cambodia. It’s cheap to buy Cambodia. It’s like loose change falling from China’s pocket at this point. China might succeed in buying the authorities, but would it make sense to then have another PR disaster in turning Cambodians themselves against China?”
For Pheakdey, though, the price of inaction may be more than the Cambodian government – and the Chinese community that continues to flourish here – can afford to pay.
“If the situation continues to deteriorate and more social chaos is caused by the Chinese community in Cambodia, I think… it’s possible that it will create a negative sentiment towards Chinese nationals in Cambodia,” he said. “It’s a real risk for Cambodia.”
This article was published in the November 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.