Driving into the coastal Cambodian city of Sihanoukville, it’s easy to lose your bearings. Half-built buildings adorned with Chinese-language signs jut crudely into the sky. Casinos and other symbols of Chinese development mark the nominally Cambodian streets below.
Yet Sihanoukville, thanks to Cambodian strongman Hun Sen’s alignment with Beijing, is now a Chinese city, a colony of sorts—where the incoming conquerors act often without thought for their new local vassals. Stories of criminal Chinese behavior—kidnapping, sex trafficking, prostitution, and murder—are plentiful. This has spread across the country, spurring widespread Cambodian anti-Chinese sentiment.
China’s involvement in Cambodia demonstrates a pitfall in Beijing’s attempted hegemonic ascent. When developing states align themselves with China, many do so out of authoritarian solidarity—Beijing has in recent years bolstered unsavory allies in Phnom Penh, Harare, and Caracas, among others—but the overwhelming majority do so in hopes that China will send them educated engineers and businesspeople to fill in significant infrastructural and other developmental gaps. Instead, Chinese state-run and state-aligned companies often hire Chinese workers “who would otherwise be unemployed in China” to tamp domestic unemployment concerns. Predictably, this has angered local populations, putting receiving governments in a political bind.
In this sense, China is acting like the colonialists of old: for nearly a century, Britain, first through the East India Company and then under the Crown, exported its own mediocre men to supposedly civilize the South Asian Raj, contributing to the Empire’s impotence and eventual fall. Today, China is ultimately undermining its efforts to become the globe’s foremost power by shipping abroad its own middling ruralites.
Cambodia is not the only country in which China has invested similarly. Indeed, Chinese business conduct and racism has prompted local outrage (and in some cases, cost lives) across the globe: in Zambia, an explosion at a Chinese-owned explosives factory killed more than 50 Zambian workers, and complaints of Chinese labor abuse persist; in Kenya, a Chinese boss called all Kenyans, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, “monkeys,” while accusations of racial discrimination continue to hound Chinese companies in that country; in Latin America, Chinese mafias have become increasingly powerful, even establishing a foothold in narco-trafficking.
Chinese investment to these countries and others, namely those in the Global South, flows through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s Marshall Plan-like economic and marketing campaign for global influence. And while the BRI as a campaign is highly centralized and coordinated, it comes “attached to the less-coordinated activities of China’s state-owned enterprises and asset managers,” China researcher Ryan Manuel has found. Consequentially, the Chinese government has failed to rein in image-damaging Chinese behavior.
“China”—namely its private companies—“is not sending its best and brightest to places like Cambodia,” said Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-American professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College. “It sends its best and brightest to places like America.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has become increasingly autocratic over the years. But in 2013, he suffered a surprising electoral setback, with the opposition party managing some success in elections. His ruling party, however, is alleged to have engaged in voter fraud to maintain its grip on power. Mass protests soon erupted, with Buddhist monks, garment workers, farmers, and opposition party supporters calling for Sen’s removal.
Citing diplomatic sources, Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said Sen responded by reaching out to and seeking backing from the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh. China told Sen they would support any Cambodian leader who guarded Beijing’s interests, rather than him unconditionally. Sen, having heard and internalized this message, has since further allied his country with Beijing, banned the main opposition party and pursued an array of crackdowns. Human Rights Watch now calls him a “fully fledged military dictator.”
As the West distances itself from Cambodia’s despotic ruling regime, it’s apparent that Sen’s survival hinges on him pleasing Beijing, leaving his government unable to critique Chinese behavior or second-guess the alliance. After all, Cambodia remains part of the BRI; China is Cambodia’s biggest investor; Cambodia even plans to give China use of a naval base in the Gulf of Thailand.
Since 2017, China has invested more than $1.1 billion in Sihanoukville, which hosts Cambodia’s largest port and a Chinese Special Economic Zone linked to the BRI. Now, more than 100,000 Chinese live in Sihanoukville—and more than 210,000 live in Cambodia, period.
China’s presence and investment is supposed to improve Cambodia’s poor infrastructure—Chinese companies are currently constructing BRI-related highways and other projects, while Sen recently promised that such development will turn Sihanoukville into “a trusted financial center regionally and internationally”—but the repeated failures of Chinese workers continue to poke holes in the notion that an alliance with China benefits the average Cambodian.
In June 2019, a Sihanoukville construction site owned by three Chinese citizens collapsed, killing 28 workers, most of whom were Cambodian. This enraged the city’s remaining Cambodian residents, and galvanized national outrage at Sen for allowing this influx of Chinese human capital. Sen, seeking to defend himself, “lashed out at critics linking the tragedy to heavy Chinese investment,” according to local reports, but this rebuke was unconvincing, even at home, despite the government’s regular silencing of critics.
Rather, the incident appears to have intensified anti-China sentiment among Cambodians.
“The collapse … has deepened negative feelings about Chinese investment,” wrote Kimkong Heng, a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “Sexual harassment, kidnappings and traffic accidents involving Chinese nationals are also fueling anti-Chinese sentiment.”
But the tragedy does not appear to have caused Sihanoukville’s Chinese to rethink their place there. “Without us Chinese coming here and creating jobs for them, the Cambodians would only have a mango a day to eat,” one Chinese businessman told ChinaFile in July. “They are so backward.”
Anti-Chinese sentiment and actions—strikes on Chinese owned-companies, attacks on Chinese employees, and the political use of anti-Chinese rhetoric—have unsurprisingly become increasingly frequent in an array of BRI member countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Kazakhstan, and Zambia. Cambodia’s experience is not isolated.
This is an inevitability of the colonial—and now neocolonial—bargain: the ruling class enjoys greater proximity to power and wealth, while the general public suffers from and becomes scornful of the unsavory characters flooding into their country.
George Orwell once served as a police officer in colonial Burma. He drew upon this experience for Burmese Days, a novel in which he portrayed the British as racist incompetent drunkards who were, at best, unconcerned with the Burmese they were supposed to “civilize.” Protagonist John Flory, an unmarried man approaching middle-age, summarizes the imperial task as living in “the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them.”
Of course, the British failed in this pursuit. It sent unfit men to carry out a futile task. As a consequence, they could not govern the Raj strongly, or even well. This instead sowed domestic disdain, erupting in the Saya San and other rebellions upon which Orwell appears to have based a native uprising that lies at the heart of the Burmese Days plot.
China’s contemporary efforts are not exact colonization per se; they do not match the West’s past atrocities. But Beijing’s grander goals—to globally extend Chinese power and the perception of Chinese benevolence—come with the colonial trappings of exploitation.
Ironically, its behavior has only generated more scorn for the Chinese throughout the Global South, sometimes even bringing about anti-China political change, as was the case in Zambia. In other words, anti-Chinese sentiment is now blunting Beijing’s quest for global superiority.
Hegemony requires soft power and some genuine goodwill between peoples. American soft power, for example, relies not just on diplomacy, but on cultural and other exchanges. This is why, even as official U.S.-Cambodia relations falter, Cambodians hold high approval ratings of the U.S. It’s also why there is a general predilection for America throughout Asia.
China is certainly capable of building economic bridges across continents, but the Chinese themselves have refused to construct the societal links necessary to forge cultural hegemony. Until they do, China’s buildings and bridges will remain shells of what they could be, standing as evidence only of China’s physical and economic might—but not of a new hegemon’s societal influence.