Since the inauguration of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, the town of Sihanoukville, the location of Cambodia’s only deep-sea port, has received a massive influx of Chinese immigrants.
In 2013, there were around 80,000 Chinese nationals living in Cambodia. By 2019, that figure had jumped to 250,000. At the peak of the influx, 200,000 of these Chinese nationals lived in Sihanoukville. This increase has also been accompanied by an increase in crimes associated with the Chinese expatriate community in the coastal town, which has become the center of dozens of Chinese-run casinos.
A National Police report revealed that from January to March 2019, Chinese residents were implicated in 241 out of the 341 criminal cases involving foreigners. Between January and September of that year, 744 Chinese residents of Cambodia had been arrested and deported from the country.
Starting in early 2022, numerous reports have emerged about kidnapping, detention, and forced labor by Chinese gangs and criminal syndicates, who attract foreign nationals with promises of well-paying jobs, only to force them to conduct scam calls in prison-like conditions. In March, over 30 Indonesian nationals were rescued in Kandal province after being transferred there from Sihanoukville. In April, 66 Thai nationals were rescued from another gang. Despite around 3,000 Thais having been rescued by the police, it has been estimated by the Thai police that around 1,500 Thai workers are still trapped in Sihanoukville.
Most of the criminal enterprises in Sihanoukville relocated from mainland China after the Chinese government adopted a draconian national security law that sought to crack down on criminal syndicates and gangsters. With its weak law enforcement, Sihanoukville became a safe-haven in which these non-state actors could thrive.
The issue of crime associated with this community has the potential to undermine societal cohesion in Cambodia in a number of ways.
First of all, the presence of these types of criminal operations in Cambodia has contributed to a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment. While ethnic Chinese have historically been welcome in Cambodia, many Cambodians associate this new Chinese community with criminal and unlawful activities that have brought chaos to their country. In a study from February of this year on Cambodian perceptions of the new Chinese community, 59 percent of respondents said there is high or very high social tension between Cambodians and Chinese. This survey indicated that this response was linked to the presence of Chinese mafia organizations in Sihanoukville and their involvement in online scams, and human and drug trafficking.
There is also a clear indication that the changing demographics of Sihanoukville have led many Cambodians to be excluded from Sihanoukville’s local economy. In 2018, the city’s 120,000 Chinese nationals constituted 20 percent of the population. In July 2019, a representative from the Sihanoukville policy department estimated that up to 90 percent of the city’s businesses were owned by Chinese nationals.
The rise of Chinese organized crime has negatively affected how Cambodians view the Chinese living in Cambodia, and the domination of this local economy by Chinese business operations, both legal and illegal, ultimately acts as an exclusionary barrier to the Cambodian community.
The influx of Chinese criminal organizations also has the potential to worsen Cambodia’s socio-economic inequality. There have been allegations that a small group of Cambodian elites actually benefit or profit from these operations. For instance, some locations which are owned by or associated with Cambodian elites and tycoons, such as the Special Economic Zone in Pursat province and the Chinatown and the region surrounding the KB Hotel in Sihanoukville have been identified by rescued workers as sites that host scam operations and other illegal activities.
This implication, that some Cambodians are increasing their wealth as a result of these operations has the potential to sow even more societal division.
Some efforts have been made on the part of the Cambodian government to cooperate with the Chinese government to combat this explosion of transnational crime. In March 2019, Cambodia and China signed a Law Enforcement Cooperation agreement to help deport and investigate Chinese nationals who are accused of committing crimes in Cambodia.
And in August 2019, at the request of the Chinese government, the Cambodian government banned online gambling, an industry which was heavily associated with Chinese criminal networks. Following this measure, Cambodia saw a massive exodus of Chinese nationals.
In 2021, Cambodia drafted a new immigration law which would prevent foreigners with criminal records from entering Cambodia and would tighten control over foreigners residing in Cambodia. However, the law has yet to be approved by the National Assembly.
Cambodia needs to speed up the process of adopting this law to prevent the continued flow of criminal elements into the kingdom. Currently, foreign immigration to Cambodia is mostly unregulated, which means that foreigners with criminal records face few barriers to entry.
For instance, according to the provincial Labor Department Director, in 2019 only 22,000 Chinese nationals received business and work permits from the authority. This figure implies that there is a significant gap between the numbers of Chinese nationals living in Cambodia and the number that have the legal documents required to work in this country. It should be noted that the foreigners who are here in an undocumented capacity who end up being victims of crime are in an even more precarious state, as they may not dare to seek help from police for fear of being deported.
Cambodia needs to tighten its cooperation on intelligence and information-sharing with China and other Southeast Asian countries regarding the flow of immigrant workers.
Sending states like Malaysia, China, and Thailand have access to information from their citizens who are trapped in Cambodia, as they share the information via secret phone call or through social media. This information is crucial to law enforcement as it can help to inform police of the location of the scam operation, and the details of the allegations.
For instance, the Malaysian Chinese Association has received requests from family members whose children are stuck in Cambodia, which the association has passed on to Malaysian Government’s Council for Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (MAPO). MAPO has then sent the information to Interpol. Thailand and Malaysia have both issued warnings about the prevalence of illegal detention and forced labor in Cambodia, which they have learnt from their citizens who immigrated to work in the country.
Finally, the Cambodian government must also take seriously the allegations that Cambodian elites and tycoons have been involved in providing buildings and compounds that have been used for unlawful purposes.
Overall, the rise of crimes committed by Chinese nationals in the Kingdom not only affects the security of Cambodian and Chinese nationals who are residing in Cambodia, but it also generates, unfairly, a negative view toward the Chinese community as a whole. In this regard, Cambodia needs to strengthen its law enforcement and work with other countries to combat the issues. If the current situation continues to persist, it will lead to a deepening social divisions and further unjust discrimination against the Chinese nationals in Cambodia.
This commentary is part of the Social Cohesion Project. The project invites young Cambodian researchers to conceptualize and model social cohesion in Cambodia. It is produced in partnership between Future forum and UNDP Cambodia.