The Spirit of China in Cambodia

The way people in Cambodia relate to the rich and varied spirit realm tells us much about their hopes and fears but also their values and sense of identity. Chinese ritual practices accompanied the arrival of Chinese migrants, who began arriving in Phnom Penh as early as the 15th century. Chinese arrivals then increased during the French Protectorate (1863-1953) but in the last few years, their numbers have grown exponentially and China’s impact is felt throughout Cambodian society. As Chinese influence intensifies, Cambodians are trying position themselves in relation to this new tide of values.

A Cambodian man in his forties whom I have known for more than twenty years recently told me that, “Before 2017, Khmer people who had Chinese ancestors were proud to make offerings to them because their livelihoods improved each year. But around 2018-2019, Khmer-Chinese people began feeling ashamed to celebrate this ceremony because of all the problems created by those Chinese …. Khmer people also see that some rich Chinese can buy a position working with government even though they can’t speak Khmer. They own lots of businesses here, even small businesses such as barbers’ shops, selling fruit, fixing motorbikes and driving tuk-tuks”.

His paternal grandfather came to Cambodia from China, and his family have, for as long as I have known them, made offerings at both Khmer and Chinese major rituals. However, he says that in the last couple of years, he has asked his wife to stop preparing any offerings or putting Chinese stickers up outside the apartment. “Those stickers used to be a sign of happiness,” he said. “But now they remind us of trouble, so we keep the stickers inside. I still join the ceremony with my father, to honour his father. I don’t want to make him sad. But even he has decided to celebrate Chinese New Year more discreetly than before, inside the house with just a small offering.

Some Cambodians may have held out hopes of rapid enrichment when Chinese power began infiltrating the country, but there is now considerable disenchantment with its effects.

Chinese migrants have a long history of arriving to Cambodia to engage in trade, often intermarrying with Khmers. However, since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Cambodia has both changed nature and grown considerably, evoking mixed reactions.

Children watching a Chinese Lunar New Year Parade in Cambodia. Image credit:
Paolo Di Tommaso
on FlickR (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Paolo Di Tommaso

The PRC supported the Maoist Khmer Rouge throughout their Democratic Kampuchea regime (1970-1975) and onwards through the 1980s, when the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK 1979-1991) had taken over power and in which Hun Sen was given a leading role. After the Vietnamese withdrew, the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) took over interim administration of the country in 1991 and oversaw its first democratic elections in 1993. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) formally lost to Prince Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC party. However, in the interests of maintaining peace the then King, Sihanouk, brokered a co-Prime Ministership between Hun Sen and Ranariddh, whom the PRC favoured. However, by 1996, tiring of Ranariddh’s courtship with Taiwan, the PRC turned attention to Hun Sen. Perhaps emboldened by this, Hun Sen and his loyal factions staged a coup in 1997 against the FUNCINPEC factions and emerged triumphant.

In condemnation, Western donors then cut all but humanitarian aid. So, Hun Sen turned to the PRC, which, seeing a chance to increase its influence in the Greater Mekong region, recognized Hun Sen as leader, opposed international sanctions and warned Western countries not to interfere in Cambodia’s domestic affairs. Since then, Sino-Cambodian relations at the top level have grown tighter, and the PRC has provided economic support with seemingly no strings attached.

The New Chinese

What has happened in Cambodia since then illustrates how 21st century Chinese expansionism is enabling Beijing to rewrite the rules of global trade and security and preclude challenges to its multiplying global interests. In 2006, Cambodia and China signed a treaty of “Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation”. China increased it loans and aid portfolio to Cambodia, began providing military aid and became increasingly involved in constructing hydropower plants, which Milne and Mohanty describe as ‘engines of extraction’.

In 2012, just a year after coming to power, President Xi Jinping announced a land-based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and sea-based ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ initiative, which were then combined into the single concept – the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI). This comprises various infrastructural connections by sea and land intended to make the PRC the global hub of a network connecting South, Southeast and Central Asia, Pacific Oceania, Africa, and Europe. The BRI has become the key mechanism for advancing Chinese overseas interests and achieving global economic governance. It has been welcomed by Prime Minister Hun Sen as a means to boost “regional and global cooperation in terms of hard and soft infrastructure, economy, trade, investment, cultural exchange, people-to-people connectivity, and so on”. Cambodia’s deep-sea port town of Sihanoukville, previously a sleepy beachside town, became known as China’s first port of call on its massive initiative. Chinese hotels and casinos mushroomed, essentially transforming the town into a Chinese enclave.

A panoramic view of the Autonomous Port Sihanoukville in October 2014, by Wikirictor at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Business connections between ‘old’ Chinese (descendants of migrants who came to Cambodia during the French protectorate to engage in commerce, some whom have strong connections with the current urban elites) and the new Chinese influx are now oiling the machinery of Cambodia’s long-standing domestic system of patronage. Chinese investments in the country, which include large casinos and real estate projects, also largely lack transparency and accountability, thus fuelling corruption.

Chinese companies have also been awarded some half of Cambodia’s 4.6 million hectares of economic land concessions and they are responsible for a considerable acceleration of environmental degradation and disenfranchisement of communities. For example, China’s Union Development Group alone was reported in 2017 to have cleared some 36,000 hectares of forest in the largest national park in the country – Botum Sakor – for ‘development’, leading to the displacement of thousands of embittered locals. When a Reuters reporter tried to enter the zone, a ranger forbade them, threatening to call in the military police who provide security for major concessionaires like this, and stating, “This is China.”

The widespread land conflicts resulting from this kind of change fuelled the disenchantment with Hun Sen’s CPP that became evident in the rise of popularity of the major opposition party in the 2013 and 2017 commune elections. Many observers see a correlation between Chinese backing and the subsequent consolidation of CPP power through drastic crackdowns on dissenting voices in politics, civil society and the media.

The outlawing of the opposition party in 2017 prior to the national elections of 2018 appears to mirror China’s model of governance and although this was decried as the ‘death of democracy’ by western observers, it was endorsed by Beijing as a means to ensure continued stability and ‘development’ in Cambodia. Tourists from China continued flocking to Cambodia, with numbers exceeding 2 million in 2019.

In this climate of China’s increasingly prominent position of global normative as well as material dominance, visible displays of resistance carry significant risks. It therefore seems unsurprising that Chinese observers claim relations between the new Chinese investors and their Cambodian hosts are largely friendly, and they dismiss reports of anger among Cambodians as a form of “information warfare” through which “some political forces [specifically, western countries and the Cambodian opposition party] keep hyping up the hostile voices of Cambodians against the Chinese.”

Spirits of Ambivalence in Cambodia

 Sino-Khmer people (Cambodians with Chinese ancestry) have long worshipped Chinese spirits in Cambodia. Indeed, beside the 700-year old temple of Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, is a sacred house with red lanterns and Chinese characters that has become attractive, not only for Sino-Khmer people, but also for visitors from mainland China and for Vietnam. It is said to have formerly housed a Khmer neak ta spirit that became superseded by Chinese statuary and imagery. A retired caretaker of the shrine claims that the temple’s current image dates back to just a few decades ago when Chinese statues were brought there from all over the city by the Khmer Rouge after they took power in 1975.

Not long after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the caretaker is reported as saying, Sino-Khmers returned to the city and collected the statues, leaving two behind, the monk Xuangzang and the god of the earth, Tudigong. Since then, Sino-Khmers have continued bringing new statues there to make merit and a Sino-Khmer tycoon has allegedly donated money to have the building extended.

The 1980s were also a time when Khmer people beyond the capital were beginning to appreciate the power of new Chinese money in the post-socialist economy. The man cited at the opening of this article grew up on the outskirts of one of Cambodia’s larger towns. He told me, “When I was a teenager [the 1990s], I remember many Khmer people who had no Chinese relatives copying Chinese rituals. For example, the parents of one of my friends worked very hard fishing, farming, building boats and transporting oranges from farms to market for rich Sino-Khmer businessmen to sell. That family faced many problems. Sometimes they were shot at by Khmer Rouge soldiers, who demanded money to let them pass. But one day, my friend’s mother started making offerings during Chinese New Year, because she said those Khmer-Chinese people don’t work hard, but they make much more money than us. We run out of money every year and have to borrow from them.”

Similarly, a Khmer student in his late twenties told me, “Our neighbours never used to celebrate Qing Ming (Cheng Meng) or Zhongyuan Jie (Kbal Tek, Chinese festival of the dead) before, but nowadays they take loans to buy expensive food and drink so they can celebrate these rituals. Khmer people used to go to the neak ta [spirits of the land] when they had trouble or were afraid. But some Khmer have lost faith in the power of their own neak ta to help. Nowadays, the rich take land from the poorest, and getting rich is the only way to be safe. So, people turn to other spirits they think may help them get rich.”

Perhaps in part to please the Chinese, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in 2019 that increasing numbers of people were celebrating Chinese New Year in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, this may reflect the increasing number of Chinese living there and the numerous new ties (economic as well as through intermarriage) between Cambodians and Chinese.

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A reflection on China-Myanmar relations ahead of Xi Jinping’s visit on 17 January 2020.

However, some, as the opening quotation betrays, feel ashamed even to be associated with the negative meanings that Chinese power in Cambodia has recently acquired. The displacement of thousands of rural people from their lands by Chinese companies enjoying land concessions from the Cambodian government has locals, who lack access to economic power or the backing of powerful networks, with little hope of winning in the corrupt domestic court system. Yet, there is now at least one case of a major Chinese sugar plantation group recently abandoning its efforts in Cambodia for reasons unstated but following years of conflict with displaced indigenous locals, who appealed to their own spirits of the land to curse the Chinese company to die for seven generations. In recent personal communication, Ass. Prof. Courtney Work has kindly shared with me the fact that people she knows in the area are saying that their own unceasing resistance along with the help of their own spirit power, their neak ta, contributed to the departure of the Chinese from the area.

In 2020, Cambodia lost up to 95% of its tourism due to Covid-19. China’s ‘face-mask diplomacy’ – the provision of tons of Chinese medical supplies, masks, ventilators, test kits and medical trainers – enabled the two governments to claim still greater friendship. And in 2020, Cambodia and China also made efforts to bring order into the now ill-reputed beachtown of Sihanoukville by banning online gambling there. The dramatic reduction in numbers of Chinese tourists to the town following the outbreak of Covid-19 may have brought some respite as well. However, it remains to be seen what meanings the powerful spirit of China will hold for Cambodians in the years to come.

The author would like to extend warm thanks to the Swedish Research Council and the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation for the sponsorship that enabled me to undertake the research underlying this article. Thanks also to Courtney Work for sharing her insights, and sincere gratitude also to all the Cambodians who have over the years tried to help me understand what is happening to their country.

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