Cambodia’s Regard for China: How are Chinese Companies Doing There

Written by Xinyuan Zhang

The flourishing Angkor dynasty, the bloody Khmer Rouge, and the mossy stone temples cast an air of mystery over Cambodia. However, when you actually set foot on the land, you get a real sense of the human touch. The market, the rice fields, and the earthy aromas make it a home away from home.

The close tie between Cambodia and China dates back to the Yuan dynasty when a book called “The Land and Customs of Chenla” evoked a longing for the land among Chinese inhabitants. In the book, Cambodia is described as a paradise where “rice and grain are easy to get, women are easy to marry, houses are easy to build, tools are easy to use, and business is easy to do”. By the end of the 19th century, the number of Chinese immigrants to Cambodia had reached 130,000. By 2016, this number had grown to about 900,000.

The official economic cooperation between the two countries lasted from the founding of the state to the present. In recent years, the Belt and Road Initiative enabled more and more Chinese companies to invest in Cambodia under the support of the government. From 2013 to 2017, Chinese investment had added $5.3 billion to Cambodia’s economic growth. According to official forecasts, the trade volume between the two countries will reach $10 billion in 2023. Against the backdrop of the increasing Chinese investment into Cambodia, local people, NGOs, and media demonstrate a complex attitude towards the changes brought by Chinese companies. Meanwhile, these companies urgently need to shape China’s good national image in front of Cambodians so as to boost the development of their own businesses.

Cambodian people’s familiarity with China

In fact, Cambodian residents are relatively interested in and knowledgeable about China for reasons of geographical intimacy, historical links, and immigration. Two random street interviews organized respectively by CCFR and the Cambodia Chinese Newspaper show that many Cambodian people demonstrate familiarity with China. Some interviewees even have knowledge about the economic and political exchanges between the two countries.

A Cambodian Chinese interviewed said that because of his Chinese identity, he had the opportunity to do business with the Chinese and had more contact with them, and considered them to be hardworking and reliable partners. When asked what memories they had of China, many Cambodian residents of older generations remembered the history of political cooperation. They replied, “I think of Mao Zedong, who helped us a lot,” or “Emperor Sihanouk and H.E. Zhou Enlai. While the younger generation thinks of Alibaba, the Chinese corporate giant.

A senior interviewee talking of political leaders. Source: CCFR

Asked by the interviewer about the buzzwords for diplomatic relations between the two countries, a youthful-looking teenager replied, “Lancang-Mekong Conference”, while others answered “25th anniversary of China-ASEAN” or “the Belt and Road”. Some people even specified project names, such as “Highway 8” “the Mekong Bridge” “the new bridge at Suyonghua”, and “the Tonle Sap Bridge at Prek Kdam”. Overall, a great portion of interviewees demonstrated familiarity with China.

Anti-Chinese sentiment of some Cambodian people

In one of the interviews mentioned above, when asked what investments Cambodians want most, the answers included rice cultivation, tourism, transportation system, and study abroad. This reflects that this part of the population recognizes the significance of Chinese investment in Cambodia.

However, if we look beyond these two small-scale street interviews and look at the broader social realities of Cambodia, we can easily see that Chinese companies also face controversies and challenges in Cambodia.

The Diplomat reported a tendency of anti-Chinese Sentiment in Cambodia. According to its quotation, a Facebook comment under hashtag #ChineseAgain! reads: “Chinese nationals have come to invest in Cambodia, prompting so many problems to Cambodia and making the people suffer…”

Michael Weaver, an assistant professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, agrees that the increase in Chinese investment has stirred up a certain amount of anti-Chinese sentiment in Cambodia. Three reasons are proposed to explain the phenomenon.

One of the reasons is the misbehavior of Chinese tourists, causing intrinsic resentment among locals.

The second reason is that the increase in the number of Chinese-owned enterprises has crowded out the resources of local enterprises. Taking tourism as an example, the coastal tourist town of Sihanoukville has been “taken over” by Chinese tourists and Chinese companies, which has caused concern among Cambodians. The area is full of Chinese-run stores and restaurants, leaving little room for local businesses to survive.

Chinese Casino, Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Source: Trip Advisor

Third, Chinese investment under the Belt and Road Initiative has widened the local income gap between the elite and the general public. In recent years, Chinese investment and aid to Cambodia have been directed by the ruling party to the forces associated with it, and the economic power of the elite has expanded. The lives of ordinary people, on the other hand, have been affected by the problems caused by Chinese investment. Most of the large Chinese companies come from the large infrastructure construction, real estate, mining, garment, and tourism industries. As the influence of these companies grows in Cambodia, the problems they bring to the grassroots in Cambodia, such as the dispossession of land, the loss of rural livelihoods, and the creation of low-income jobs in factories or on construction sites, become apparent.

The political concern is another reason for Cambodian’s resentments, though not covered by Professor Weaver. On the one hand, some local people believe that Chinese investors are as dangerous as criminals. According to The Diplomat, a student and founder of the ASEAN Young Political Leaders Network interviewed by the magazine believes that Chinese investors, who indeed are Chinese gangs, used violence towards innocent Cambodians, triggering the hatred of countless Cambodian people. On the other hand, more Cambodians are convinced that China is exchanging investments for political interests. In 2020, the anti-China protest over the alleged military base shows that a number of Cambodians are concerned about the political influence of China. This opinion is still used in the rhetoric of the opposition party.

Environmental concern of Cambodian NGOs

Cambodian NGOs’ environmental concern on Chinese investments could trace back to the autumn of 2007 when the Kamchay Hydropower Station started construction. The project was invested by the Sinohydro Group Ltd. from China. In 2008, after a systematic research process, local NGOs found out negative social and environmental impacts of the project and reported the result to local and international media. The NGOs questioned the opaqueness of the relevant measurements which should have been taken by the company. Despite the station’s operation, the dispute did harm to the overall image of Chinese investments.

According to Radio Free Asia, in 2019, an activist from Cambodia NGO, Mother Nature, posted a video, revealing that the Chinese-funded Sunshine Bay Hotel and Casino was spewing raw sewage in the sea. The post called on the government to shut the hotel down. The activist said in RFA’s interview that the company was “violating the laws”. “We want investors to bring development, but we don’t want them to harm the environment,” he said.

A screen grab from a video showing how sewage streamed out of the Sunshine Bay Hotel and Casino, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Source: Mother Nature’s Facebook page

Although local NGOs had been condemning unbecoming Chinese enterprises for environmental disruption, there are opportunities to communicate. In April 2019, the NGO Forum on Cambodia (NGOF) co-organized a two-day workshop on “Understand of China Investment in Cambodia”. Conflict analysis of Chinese investment activities was an important topic. A Chinese professor from Beijing Technology and Business University was invited as a presenter. The effort of Chinese civil society also helps to ameliorate China’s national image. A Chinese NGO, Peaceland Foundation, participated in the long-established demining program in Cambodia since March 2019, showing the environmental awareness of the Chinese.

Chinese professor sharing at the workshop. Source: NGO Forum on Cambodia

Divergence of Cambodian Chinese and English mainstream media

Local media reports are reflections of how Cambodian public opinion feels about Chinese investment. An article in the Journal of Guangxi University for Nationalities examines the coverage of the Belt and Road in three mainstream Cambodian newspapers, which reveals that local Chinese and English newspapers have different speculations about Chinese investment in recent years.

Among the three selected newspapers, Cambodia-China Daily is the only Chinese media, which is the organ of the Cambodian-Chinese Council, and is more influential among the local Chinese; Cambodia Daily is known for its surveillance and criticism of the government; Phnom Penh Post is the most subscribed Cambodian news media in Cambodia and the world. Since Chinese investment in Cambodia has been linked to the Belt and Road Initiative in recent years, this study summarizes the descriptive terms used by the three media in 2015-2017, focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative.

Cambodia-China DailyCambodia DailyPhnom Penh Post 
“Active Response”
“Active involvement”
“Warm welcome”“
Development Opportunity”
“Great Opportunity”
“Great Situation”
“Good Cooperation”
“Mutual Win-Win “
“launch”(6 times )
“complete”(4 times)
“positive signs” 

Phrases used to describe the B&R Initiative. Source: Journal of Guangxi University for Nationalities 

From the table, it can be seen that the first two newspapers are biased in their wording to a certain extent. Cambodia-China Daily shows recognition, welcome, and a positive attitude towards the B&R. Cambodia Daily tends to remind the potential risks of the “Belt and Road” implementation, as well as the suspected motives of China’s interaction with Cambodia. In contrast, Phnom Penh Post is more neutral in its language.

In addition, two English media outlets have attributed China’s investment in the Belt and Road. The attribution structure is usually subjective, which may generate unprecise implications the public. The Cambodia Daily‘s attribution points to political factors and makes several references to the South China Sea. The Phnom Penh Post points out that China’s increased investment or commitment to increase investment in Cambodia is to gain Cambodia’s support for China’s Belt and Road initiative and other Southeast Asian policies. The Chinese newspaper, Cambodia China Daily, did not speculate further on the purpose of the economic activities in the Belt and Road.

The role of media is not limited to an epitome of public opinion. Media report exerts a directive function towards its audience. Among the three mainstream newspapers in Cambodia, only the Chinese newspaper “The Cambodia-China Daily” has a more positive attitude towards Chinese investment, the other two newspapers adopt a relatively critical and cautious approach. Due to the limitation of language popularity, the readers of Cambodian English media are mainly ethnically Chinese, and their influence is not as widespread as that of the other two English newspapers.

Chinese companies to help ameliorate the national image

It can be seen that the problems brought by the increasing Chinese investment in Cambodia may trigger doubt or even rejection among local people. Thus, Chinese-funded companies in Cambodia shall be cautious about the potential social, economic, environmental problems that they may bring to the country. These issues cannot be ignored in the quest for social acceptance of Chinese companies. The construction of a good national image requires not only economic cooperation, but also effective communication with the local people, respect and adaption to the local culture.

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