Southern Gamble: Mainland China Swarm to Cambodia for Illusive Money, Limited Freedom

Leeshai Lemish

PHNOM PENH – Mr. Wang sits in a red plastic chair on the concrete patio in front of his empty restaurant. His cigarette smoke disappears in the clouds of motorcycle exhaust emanating from the street on a Phnom Penh morning, yet his voice, thick with a northeastern-Chinese accent, easily overcomes the calls of peddlers selling baguettes and coconuts. One or two Mainlanders from the neighborhood frequent his restaurant to buy a few steamed buns and keep Mr. Wang company. Their business is slow, too, so they pass their mornings at his place sitting by a metal table, reading a Chinese newspaper and sipping tea hotter than the Cambodian summer.

Mr. Wang’s story is typical: a failed business in China, hope for prosperity abroad, and a family left behind and rarely called.

Over the past half decade, thousands of middle-aged Chinese have migrated south to Cambodia, a poor, corruption-riddled country with an infantile democracy and a reluctantly developing economy.

At Home Abroad

Ethnic Chinese living in Cambodia, known as Sino-Khmer, have run the local economy for centuries. Traditionally, the Chinese have been the merchants and traders, while the local Khmer have been the rice growers and fishermen.

As a result, Sino-Khmer have generally been wealthier than the natives, and have come to dominate the capital. By the end of the French occupation half a century ago, Phnom Penh resembled a gigantic Chinatown, complete with Chinese newspapers, Chinese temples, Chinese schools, Chinese shops, and Chinese holidays.

The Chinese suffered tremendously under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, however, when they had to hide their Chinese identity and adopt native names. Partially inspired and funded by the Chinese Communist Party, the Khmer Rouge’s late 1970s genocide killed an estimated one of every four Cambodian residents.

Although Phnom Penh has not fully recovered its past glory, the Sino-Khmer who survived have once again risen to the top. Many of the richest and most powerful figures in Cambodia – including top ministers, the owner of the Intercontinental Hotel, and the Head of the Khmer-Chinese Association – are ethnic Chinese.

Cambodian Opportunity

Unlike past generations of migrants, who traditionally traveled from China’s southern provinces, Mr. Wang and many of the new immigrants come from China’s northeastern “rustbelt” region. There, privatization of state-run industries since 1998 has left millions unemployed and desperate.

So desperate, in fact, that they travel south to Cambodia, a country they immediately describe as backwards, filthy, and dangerous.

For skilled Chinese workers such as Mr. Ma, the gamble has paid off. He is employed by one of the dozens of garment factories located on the way to the Phnom Penh airport, just outside the city. Ma is one of approximately 20 Chinese, all supervisors, in a factory that employs over 2,000 young Cambodian women. His salary of $400 a month easily doubles what he would have made for the same work in Beijing, where he’s from.

Others have not yet cashed in. They say Cambodia is small and should develop quickly once it finally gets going. They wait patiently, hoping to make it big when the economy turns around.

“I don’t like to fail…so I won’t go back until I succeed here,” says Mr. Liu, owner of a small, struggling factory. “Almost all Chinese are like that,” he says. “They don’t want to lose face.”

If it’s Dangerous, They Still Come

Most of the recent immigrants knew that the Cambodian life would be less comfortable than life in a Chinese city. Living expenses are higher than in China, trash is everywhere, and apartments are dark and stuffy.

Moreover, they find Cambodia unsafe. Women do not leave their houses after dark, and rumors abound of Chinese being murdered and even beheaded over monetary conflicts.

Yet they continue to move to Cambodia.

“Chinese people have this characteristic,” says a restaurant owner. “Wherever it is dangerous they will go there,” adding, “as long as they can make money.”

Paid in Dollars

Many of the mainlanders complain that they were tricked into coming. The newcomers typically learn about Cambodia through a friend or relative who went back to China and told them about it.

According to Dr. Zhou, many will return to China after failing in Cambodia but, because they fear losing face, will lie to their friends back home. “Cambodia is great!” Dr. Zhou imitates. “You get paid in dollars there. You should definitely go check it out!”

Others are victims of organized scams. They are promised a job that will pay an enormous amount of money. They front a large sum to a go-between, who promises to arrange everything, and fly to Cambodia. When they arrive, they find no job and no money.

They often find help among their fellow overseas Chinese. One business owner in northern Cambodia describes himself as “the local Chinese consulate,” for the few mainlanders in his city all come to him for help whenever they have problems.

“The Chinese Embassy will help if there is a large group of people who got into trouble and they make a lot of noise,” says one informant. “As for what happens to an individual Chinese person, however, they could care less. They are too busy.”

Governments in Bed

On bustling Mao Tse-tung Blvd., behind a tall concrete wall and barb-wired fence, lies the Chinese Embassy. For a facility spanning four city blocks, it would take more than just the Cambodian Minister of Information – who says he has lunch and dinner with the embassy staff every day – to keep them busy.

The Chinese authorities have constructed a hospital, given occasional small amounts of money to the Chinese schools, and continue to provide medical care in Beijing to the Cambodian King Sihanouk. Moreover, it has almost single handedly sponsored Cambodia’s military.

Many locals, however, are skeptical about the Chinese government’s intentions. Some believe it is determined to position Cambodia on its side in a struggle for influence across Asia Pacific.

Others, such as Tom Fawthrop of the Phnom Penh Post, say the Chinese government “is piling up goodwill, aid and investment in a sustained bid to head off what they see as the unpalatable threat of a Khmer Rouge [Genocide] Tribunal,” which would implicate the Chinese Communist Party as well.

According to one informant, the Chinese government is highly involved in the Cambodian government’s internal affairs, going so far as to suggest what kind of parliamentary coalitions should be made and with whom.

Current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote in 1988 that “China is the root of all that is evil in Cambodia.” Yet today, the leaders of poor and small Cambodia feel that if they cannot face up to “the big fish,” they might as well align with it.

“The Cambodian government is in bed with the Chinese government,” says a Cambodian-based human rights worker who asked not to be identified. “They will do whatever the Chinese government tells them to. They don’t care.”

Little Refuge

The most famous example is that of a couple of Chinese school teachers who were abducted from their homes by the cooperative forces of the embassy and Cambodian police.

Mr. Li Guojun and Ms. Zhang Xinyi were adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice persecuted in China. They settled in Cambodia, one of only two Southeast Asian countries (the Philippines is the other) to have signed the United Nations’ convention guaranteeing protection to refugees.

With the assistance of a spy who doubles as a reporter for the Beijing-controlled Jian Hua Daily, the embassy learned about the couple in the summer of 2002. Several days later, Cambodian police arrested the two. Although they held official “person of concern” protection status cards from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the immigration bureau facilitated sending them back to China. The wife was subsequently locked in a Chinese labor camp.

Christian Chinese refugees residing in Cambodia have also reported being followed and receiving death threats from the Chinese Embassy.

One such refugee, Mr. Chen, conducted a one-man protest in front of the Chinese Embassy on the day of elections in Taiwan this past March. He held up a hand-made sign that read “Dark Evil China,” in Chinese and English. He was beaten by the embassy’s security staff, chased across the city, and knocked out with a blow to the head at the Russian Market. The next thing he knew he was in jail.

Chen was released three days later. His story was covered in Khmer-language newspapers, but none of the three Chinese papers dared to report it.

No Criticism

Topics such as protests against the Chinese government, Taiwanese pro-independence activities, Falun Gong, or the spread of HIV/AIDS in China are considered extremely sensitive and are rarely covered by the Chinese-language papers in Cambodia. According to one reporter, the papers avoid certain issues because they fear the Chinese Embassy.

“Politics is now being manipulated by the Chinese Embassy through economics,” the reporter says.

Censorship of the Chinese papers in Cambodia works as follows: the embassy pressures the Khmer-Chinese Association, which then pressures the congregations (smaller associations divided by Chinese dialect groups known as “hui guan”), which in turn pressure companies to stop advertising in that paper and run it out of business.

“If it’s injustice [that has taken place], than it’s injustice, and that’s how it should be [reported],” says the journalist. “But when it comes to the Chinese Embassy, the Chinese government or our local government, we cannot criticize them.”

Obedient Overseas

Chinese newspapers are not the only ones applying self-censorship.

“We don’t dare to talk about some things, things that have to do with politics,” says Ms. Zhang, a Chinese masseuse. “As Chinese people, there are some things we just can’t say.”

Thousands of miles away from home, she is afraid of others finding out. “As Chinese people, we have to do what our [Chinese] government tells us. We have to be obedient.”

One informant estimates that there are at least 30 Chinese spies operating in Phnom Penh, including a reporter as well as a heavy-set man who likes to hang out near the Chinese restaurant strip adjacent to the central market.

Those who left China after feeling oppressed, find having to still live in fear troubling.

Many of the recent migrants are in their fifties, the generation that was sent down to the countryside as teenagers during the Cultural Revolution and did not get a chance to finish school. A large number had seen their parents suffer humiliation, beatings, or worse at the hands of the Red Guards, and even experienced intense persecution themselves.

Freedom is in the Bank

Although they are still afraid to protest, speak or write freely in what is officially a democratic Cambodia, the majority of the new migrants say they do not care. They have the freedom to make money.

With Cambodian government restrictions on Chinese entrepreneurs nearly non-existent, they can open and close restaurants, shops, and even commercial hospitals, as they please.

The liberty Chinese appreciate comes in various forms. Many, both male and female, take advantage of being away from their spouses to find a partner for a simultaneous, unregistered, marriage life in Cambodia.

For some, the civil and political rights they do find in Phnom Penh are an improvement. Unlike most parts of China, in Cambodia they can watch television stations from Hong Kong and Taiwan, surf the Internet freely, and go to temples and churches of their choice.

“I’ll tell you, Cambodia is very good; better than China,” says Mr. Liu. “China has no human rights.”

As for Mr. Wang, he sits on his plastic chair, smoking another cigarette, waiting for a customer and waiting for change in Cambodia, or China.

Leeshai Lemish is conducting research on the overseas Chinese population in Cambodia courtesy of a grant from the Freeman Foundation.

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