PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — When a Chinese national crashed his military number-plated SUV into a stone erected in Phnom Penh in the 1990s to celebrate Cambodian-American friendship, many commented on how it was the perfect metaphor for Cambodia in 2018.
“Chinese nationals have come to invest in Cambodia, prompting so many problems to Cambodia and making the people suffer,” commented one Facebook user under a post using the #ChineseAgain! hashtag on a popular page focused on highlighting social issues.
Whether it’s gangsters brawling in bars, drunk tourists crashing cars, or scammers running online extortion schemes, the Chinese are rarely out of the news here these days.
The numbers of Chinese flocking to Cambodia is rising at an unprecedented rate, with more than 1.27 million tourists visiting between January and August, up 72 percent over last year, according to the Tourism Ministry. Numbers are expected to continue to rise at a similar rate.
There are also increasing numbers of Chinese workers and businessmen relocating to Cambodia, while China has strengthened its diplomatic and military ties with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime, resulting in huge grants and military aid packages.
With this influx has come increasing anti-Chinese sentiment among Cambodians, who are becoming increasingly angered by the perceived bad behavior of these newcomers and fear their country is being sold off to the giant from the north.
“There are countless Cambodian people all over the country immensely dissatisfied with the recent unethical behavior of (some) Chinese gangs — who are called Chinese ‘investors’ — who often use cruel violence towards innocent Cambodian people, especially innocent Cambodian women,” said Yong Heng, 25, a student and a founder of the ASEAN Young Political Leaders Network.
Heng said he wasn’t “brainwashed” into discriminating against foreigners and welcomed tourism and investment, but that the increased influence in Cambodian affairs was an existential threat to his country’s culture, environment, democracy, human rights, and “behavioral ethics.”
One area that has attracted more column inches than any other regarding the influence of China — and the behavior of its tourists — is the port city of Sihanoukville. In recent years the town of around 160,000 has been almost completely transformed by Chinese casinos, hotels, restaurants, bars, and factories.
This has not been lost on Western media, with some of the world’s biggest mastheads running stories on the “Chinese takeover” in Sihanoukville. Many have depicted the influx as destroying what was an “idyllic” enclave, while overlooking the fact that Westerners had been fighting, drug dealing, and paying for sex with prostitutes in Sihanoukville long before the Chinese arrived.
While recognizing the negative effects of such rapid transformation in Sihanoukville, Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank, said he thought the main problem on the coast was the government putting foreigners before locals.
Rising anti-Chinese sentiment across Cambodia was the reason so many locals are now staying away from Sihanoukville, Virak said, adding that this — rather than just Westerners holidaying elsewhere — was one of the main reasons the local economy is being hit hard.
“It’s the unknown. A drunken Chinese is scarier than a drunken Westerner, who you see every single night,” he said.
The negative influence of China on the Cambodian government is real and something that should not be overlooked, Virak said. However, he felt many were simply tarring all Chinese nationals with the same brush.
“The threat is real about how close we have got to China. But that’s a foreign policy issue, not a people issue. With many Cambodian people it’s just: ‘We hate the Chinese, all Chinese are evil,’” he said.
Hun Sen’s pivot to Beijing has come at a time when relations with the West are in freefall. The EU is threatening to withdraw Cambodia’s trade preferences under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme for its “blatant disregard” of human and labor rights standards attached to the agreement.
Any final flickers of hope for true democracy were put out when the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was outlawed last year and its leader, Kem Sokha, thrown in jail on widely discredited claims he was plotting a U.S.-backed revolution. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party took all 125 National Assembly seats in July’s general election, making Cambodia the world’s youngest one-party state.
Many draw a clear correlation between increased Chinese influence and the recent crackdown on dissenting voices in politics, the media, and society at large. While Hun Sen was previously required to at least pay lip service to human rights and democracy when relying on aid from the West, China does not demand the same assurances.
Hun Sen has sought to ease the anti-Chinese tension rising on his watch, telling Cambodians in Geneva last month that Chinese labor was essential for construction projects but that they would not be sticking around.
“Once they’re done with their work, they will not stay in Cambodia. They will go back. Please have no doubt about that. We don’t have any law which will allow them to stay as well,” Voice of America quoted him as saying.
Ou Virak suggested that Hun Sen could even be willing to accept criticism for cozying up to China if it meant detracting attention from his ties to Vietnam.
Hun Sen was placed in power by the Vietnamese during its occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s and his political opponents have regularly painted him as a puppet of Hanoi. Opposition leaders like former CNRP president Sam Rainsy have been accused in the past of fanning the flames of anti-Vietnamese sentiment in a country where distrust of its easterly neighbor and its people run deep.
“In some strange way it’s actually quite good for Hun Sen. The Vietnamese connection is one that is very difficult for him to shake off,” Virak said. “As long as people stop looking at Vietnam and the Vietnamese as a threat and this connection in the 1980s is forgotten then that shift to the Chinese is a lot easier.”
Rainsy, who is living in Paris to avoid jail over convictions widely thought to be politically motivated, said the recent rise in “alleged” anti-Chinese sentiment was just another example of Cambodians voicing legitimate fears of foreign powers posing a threat to the country’s survival.
“This new ‘issue’ of alleged ‘anti-Chinese sentiment’ as the old ‘issue’ of alleged ‘anti-Vietnamese sentiment’ shows that the Cambodian people actually harbor no ‘anti-foreigner sentiment’ whatsoever based on any racial consideration,” he wrote in an email.
Rainsy listed the violation of the “territorial integrity,” the plundering of natural resources, and the fact Cambodia “nearly disappeared as a nation in a recent past” as reasons for widespread concern over Chinese and Vietnamese influences.
“A common, easy and unfair cliché has been to depict the protesting victims as being ‘racists’ against those who harm, exploit or threaten them,” he said.
Despite the rising feelings of resentment toward the Chinese, there are many who can trace their ancestry back to China, including Hun Sen, pointed out Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who is also of Chinese descent.
Legitimate concerns about China’s influence in Cambodia is understandable as long as it doesn’t spill over into racism and xenophobia, he said.
“I think it’s perfectly good to raise questions about China’s influence but not to say the Chinese people themselves are bad. They’re in Cambodia because the Cambodian authorities welcomed them (and their money), and Beijing incentivized their actions,” he said.
Either way, it doesn’t look like the Chinese are going anywhere soon.
“The Chinese will become more mature, they’ll be more exposed, more strategic. They’ll adapt internationally to learn to live with the locals a bit better,” Ou Virak said.
“That’s the way it’s going to be, whether you, or I, like it or not.”
George Wright is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh.