By: Gregory McCann

Tensions are rising between local Khmers and Chinese in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville and elsewhere in the country to the point where Prime Minister Hun Sen recently said that “Chinese will not live in Cambodia” in an effort to assuage public misgivings about the now-heavy Chinese presence in the Kingdom.

The fact is, however, that China has an overwhelming presence in Cambodia. Although the Ministry of Planning puts the figure of Chinese residents at 15,000,other groups such as the Joshua Project, a research initiative, put the figure at more than 10 times that, at 185,000.  Chinese have been in Cambodia since the 13th century and the two countries have probably been doing business for more than 1,000 years, trading kingfisher feathers, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns and beeswax according to a Chinese admiral named Chou Ta-Kuan (周達觀), writing in a book called The Customs of Cambodia, ” published in 1297.

This time, though, it’s different. This trend of “Chinafication” or Sinicization has greatly intensified to the point that it appears Cambodia is becoming a Chinese province. China bought up a huge portion of Botum Sakor National Park in coastal Koh Kong province a big resort is under construction. When local residents and reporters tried entering the area in 2012 they were stopped by security personnel who warned them “This is China.”

A US think tank has warned of “ulterior motives” regarding this development project, citing the proximity to a possible Kra Canal project across the Gulf in Thailand, as well as the Botum Sakor development being a strategic launching point for military operations in the South China Sea where Beijing has constructed artificial islands and installed missiles, warplanes, and other military hardware.

Just a short distance east on the coastline is Sihanoukville, now a special economic zone, but in reality quickly being bought up by Chinese investors. The Wall Street Journal called this province a “Chinese enclave” causing unease among local Khmers. Compounding the matter, China agreed to lend Cambodia US$259 million to build a new highway linking Phnom Penh with Sihanoukville, ostensibly so that Chinese can travel down to the coast more quickly; what the interest rate is on the loans and whether the laborers will be Chinese or Khmer is  unclear.

Chinese investors are aiming to turn the capital’s Riverside area into a Manhattan-style skyline, and rumors abound that Chinese investors are scouring Kampot province in an effort to turn the sleepy riverside town into another Sihanoukville bursting with Chinese casinos, massage parlors, hotels, restaurants, and citizens.

Any visitor to Phnom Penh can see how Chinese apartment buildings and other construction projects have already transformed the skyline and the feel of different areas of the city in recent years, and the trend continues. Perhaps tellingly, Chinese ambassador Xiong Bo was in attendance at a recent political rally for the CPP in the capital, while the American ambassador and their European counterparts were absent, considering the event far too political. Interestingly, China regularly proclaims that it doesn’t get involved in the politics of other countries, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Chinese investment is almost always political, as Asia Sentinel reported on July 9.

In his attempt to reassure his citizens, Hun Sen also had to deny that the sacred Yeak Loam Crater Lake in Ratanakiri Province in the far northeast had been sold to Chinese developers, contrary to reports that had surfaced earlier. Not far from Yeak Loam Lake, Chinese company Hyrdolancang built the highly controversial Sesan 2 Dam on the Sesan River, blocking one of the Mekong’s most important tributaries and fully inundating Srekor Village. And it is a Chinese company that wants to build a dam on the Mekong in Cambodia at Sambor, a project that will most likely kill the Mekong River in Cambodia.  

Chinese dams have gone up in the Cardamom Mountains, in Kampot, and in other regions, and these projects dislocate local people, cause ecological havoc, and are of questionable value to the country, especially when the power lines go to Vietnam and Thailand rather than to local people. Illegal logging for Siamese Rosewood for the exotic furniture trade in China—something along the line’s of Chou’s early commercial observation that “Many rare woods are to be found in the highlands”—has proven prescient,  with rosewood now all but extinct in Cambodia, and trees of lesser value now being relentlessly sought.

Chou Ta-Kuan had a lot to say about the economic relations between China and Cambodia nearly 800 years ago. Could he have imagined what the relations would look like today (China is also helping Cambodia install a nationwide CCTV surveillance camera monitoring system)? Could he have known how entrenched things would become?

Perhaps he did—and he might not be surprised to learn that rhinoceros have been hunted to extinction, along with tigers, and elephants now greatly reduced in number— but Henry Mouhot made a prediction: “It will not probably be long before what remains of this unfortunate land will fall under the dominion of some other power. Possibly, France has her eyes fixed upon it, with the view of annexing it to her possessions in Lower Cochin China.” Mouhot was correct as well; France did take control of Cambodia. But ultimately, it looks like Cambodia will be annexed by China, and the process is already in an advanced stage.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID, the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor, and you can support his conservation project in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park here.