Skip to main content

China, under President Xi Jinping, has sought to extend its influence at a fractious time among liberal democracies, Nathan VanderKlippe writes

Cambodian workers make blankets and quilts at a Chinese-owned factory in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, one of the most prominent of China’s investments in Cambodia.

Duch Piseth went to work on Monday knowing it could be his last day there.

"We don't really know what's going to happen," he said that night, his face grim. "There's not much we can do at this stage."

All Mr. Duch knew was what all of Cambodia knew: On Sunday, the country's firebrand Prime Minister, Hun Sen, had put a target on everyone working at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, one of the country's best-known non-governmental organizations. Mr. Duch is its advocacy director.

The group "must close," said Mr. Hun Sen, citing what he called its foreign ties. By the weekend, the Cambodian government had backed off, saying the group could continue to operate. But such a reprieve has grown rare in Cambodia, whose prime minister has been dispatching opponents with a speed that has stunned friends and rivals alike.

In a country where the leader's word quickly becomes law, the pronouncement fell like the latest warrant from an executioner who has been dispatching opponents with a speed that has stunned friends and rivals alike.

Over the past three months alone, the Cambodian government has dissolved the country's official opposition party, imprisoned the man who once led it, shuttered nearly two-dozen media outlets, jailed journalists and booted out foreign aid workers. Large numbers of government critics, including elected politicians, have left Cambodia in fear for their safety.

Cambodian activist Song Srey Leap has attended numerous protests at this site in Phnom Penh. But it has grown dangerous to hold public events amid a government crackdown, she said.

Cambodia's critics have accused Mr. Hun Sen, whose 32 years in office make him the world's longest-serving prime minister, of staging a "constitutional coup" that has snuffed out the trappings of a democracy the Western world spent heavily to assemble atop the bloodied ruins of the country's past. The United States has halted visas for senior Cambodian foreign-affairs officials. Other countries, including Canada, have issued public rebukes.

Kem Monovithya, daughter of the country's recently arrested opposition leader, Kem Sokha, has called for sanctions as a pressure tactic. The international community should "secure the democracy seeds that have been planted," she said. "It's not too late yet. But we are running out of time."

Cambodia, meanwhile, is leaning more heavily toward China, where Mr. Hun Sen's actions have won him not reproach, but praise.

Yet as Mr. Duch and his colleagues feared for their futures this week, the man raising a sword over their heads left for China, a place where Mr. Hun Sen's actions have won him not reproach but praise.

Already a potent world economic force, China under President Xi Jinping has sought to extend its influence, promoting its economic and political model at a fractious time among liberal democracies.

China's system, Mr. Xi said in mid-October, "offers a new option for other countries and nations."

"A new role model is in town," China's state-run People's Daily said in an op-ed published soon after, adding: "China can light the world, too."

And Mr. Hun Sen's Cambodia has become a bright example of Chinese succour for illiberal regimes. Economically powerful and technologically sophisticated, China has the clout to displace Western money and the know-how to equip others to follow paths similar to its own.

For Phnom Penh, Beijing has been a source of not just cash but help in running media, courts, military, economy, anti-corruption efforts, even an election.

"The authorities in Cambodia would like to transmit the idea that they are mini-China to Beijing," said Sophal Ear, a scholar at Occidental College in Los Angeles who wrote the book Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.

For China, meanwhile, Phnom Penh has become "a foil to the United States in a proxy war of liberal versus illiberal states."

A quarter-century ago, the Western world poured people and money into Cambodia to establish an elected government, in a historically expensive United Nations operation.

And, though Mr. Hun Sen maintained his grasp on power, elections were successfully held. Foreign-funded media, civil-society and human-rights organizations proliferated.

Now the Prime Minister is dismantling some of those groups, and opponents who could challenge him in future elections.

Cambodian authorities have circulated a document describing what they call a U.S. and European Union-orchestrated "colour revolution," one designed to create anarchy and exact "revenge on the leadership of the country."

The document identifies participants that include 250 civil-society and community groups, critical media outlets and more than 50 local NGOs and foreign associations.

Sok Ey San, a spokesman for the Cambodian People’s Party, says Prime Minister Hun Sen has acted legally in dissolving the country’s official opposition.

It has become a blueprint for action. Foreign-backed media organizations Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy have been chased from airwaves, radio stations closed, reporters and activists arrested and a local newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, shut.

"This was done so blatantly, so quickly, so intensely," said Naly Pilorge, director of human-rights NGO Licadho. She smoked a succession of cigarettes as she spoke. The last few months have left her "frustrated, stifled, suffocated."

In recent years, some groups had conducted "curse ceremonies," beheading chickens and spreading chili peppers in front of courts and government offices as they demanded redress for people whose land has been seized for development. But those protests have been curtailed.

"We cannot do anything because of the heated political pressure," said activist Song Srey Leap.

The most dramatic government move came in mid-November, when Cambodia's Supreme Court, whose leadership has close ties to the Prime Minister, dissolved the principal opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. The CNRP won 44 per cent of ballots in local elections in June, and was expected to mount a strong performance in a national election next year. But its leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested and accused of treason in September.

The government is acting legally and continues to support a multiparty system, said governing party spokesman Sok Ey San. But it had to act against "some tricks by foreigners who have caused enmities in our society."

He accused the former opposition of using undemocratic means to "topple the government," citing large protest rallies and calls for the Prime Minister's resignation.

"Can we as the government allow riots to occur and traffic jams to be caused?" he asked.

"This is not democracy," he added.

He spoke to The Globe and Mail inside a television studio at party headquarters, as workers fiddled with three video cameras pointed at him.

He dismissed a question about Chinese influence as motivated by "Cold War" thinking. China has offered help, and "we accept it," he said.

But Beijing's growing shadow has become difficult to miss.

"It's becoming much more apparent that the cycle of repression is going to become a more permanent state of affairs," said journalist Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen's Cambodia.

Construction workers build new factories in the 11-square kilometre Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, one of China’s most visible investments in Cambodia.

And, he said, "the enabling factor here is Chinese support."

"It's giving Hun Sen the freedom to implement his own model, which is similarly non-democratic to the Chinese model," he added.

The Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone lies a short drive from a port mounded with containers on the Gulf of Thailand's eastern shores. Maps show its expanse of factories situated inside Cambodia – but the guards at its entrance might as well be border control. Of the 116 companies inside, 99 are Chinese. Signs offering space for rent are in Chinese characters alone.

And, on one recent afternoon, staff at the economic-zone headquarters appeared to consist solely of Chinese expatriates. They like to call this place Cambodia's Shenzhen, a sleepy seaside spot being transformed by companies who enjoy tax-free imports, tax-free exports and up to nine years without corporate taxes. When leaders in China and Cambodia herald the benefits of friendship, this is the place to which they often point. In November, 17,000 Cambodian workers had jobs here. By February, local officials expect 20,000 – a boon to a poor country eager for employment and development.

"In the beginning, most workers had to take the bus. But recently, some of them started driving motorcycles and building houses for themselves," said Qi Ying, a manager at a Chinese-owned factory where nearly 100 Cambodians were sewing blankets for export to Western big-box stores.

Companies here have conducted charity events and donated to schools.

"We want them to know that Chinese companies are not single-mindedly chasing money. They also want local people to get rich," said Luo Yanyan, an official with the economic zone.

But the companies are profiting as well. Chinese firms now generate roughly two-thirds of Cambodia's electricity and are involved with 35 per cent of the country's roads. Chinese investors hold land concessions over an area nearly as large as Prince Edward Island, second only to Cambodians.

Beijing's billions of dollars have won it a loyal friend – Cambodia has frustrated regional efforts to censure Chinese conduct in the South China Sea – while giving Phnom Penh freedom from Western demands that it pull back from its new authoritarian tack.

China has become Cambodia's "economic guardian," said Li Mingjiang, a scholar at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. It offers assurance that "even if Western sanctions really do come, Cambodia's ruling party will still have sufficient money to operate."

It's a preview of Beijing's new assertiveness as it sheds a long-held aversion to international intervention.

In September, after the arrest of opposition leader Mr. Kem, China's foreign ministry said it "supports the Cambodian government's efforts to uphold national security and stability."

"That was the first time China used a word like 'support' in response to another country's internal affairs," said Chen Shilun, an expert on Cambodia at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. Both Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Xi, he said, "think stable development and regime continuity should be given utmost importance, which should surpass that of any individual interests."

China's largesse has given rise to fears that Cambodia will find it difficult to extract itself from debts, financial and otherwise, to the rising superpower.

But Mr. Hun Sen has maintained his long rule as a chessmaster deft at playing off neighbours – while pursuing his own agenda.

Indeed, Cambodia's foremost role model lies not in Beijing but in Angkor Wat, the country's vast and ancient temple site, said Youk Chhang, a long-time human-rights advocate who is now a prominent genocide archivist.

The totem to Cambodia's past as a great power is "our soul, our identity," he said, a place that has gained in importance as it has become more accessible – in part thanks to Chinese construction on the road from Phnom Penh. China has helped pave the way there.

But Mr. Youk dismissed the symbolism.

"For us it's a Cambodian road, believe me. You can fund it, you can put your flag on it," he said. "But it's a Cambodian road."

With reporting by Alexandra Li and Van Roeun