ON April 17, 1975, the residents of Cambodia's towns and cities found themselves
the "new people" of Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea, a category of class
enemy that subjected them to mass evacuation and a four-year ordeal of forced labor,
starvation and summary execution that eventually claimed the lives of 1.7 million
As the world gasped at reports of the unrelenting savagery of the Khmer Rouge's "agrarian
utopia", China scholars could only nod in rueful familiarity.
For what was unfolding in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was distressingly similar
to what had occurred in China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution,
when fanatical Maoism prompted a generation of young Chinese to make war on their
country's past and the segments of society judged unfit for life in the "new
"The forced evacuation of the cities, the execution of former government officials,
military officers and the educated; the rapid creation of communes and the frontal
assault upon religion and individualism constituted an application and extension
of Maoist ideology to the most extreme degree," writes Stephen J Morris in Why
Vietnam Invaded Cambodia.
"I believe that the KR's 'hyperMaoism' was a conscious adaptation of the Great
Leap Forward," Morris told the Phnom Penh Post. "Also it was an attempt
to show that [the KR] could be the greatest communist revolutionaries of all time,
showing up not so much the Chinese as the Vietnamese, for whom they bore great resentment
and with regard to whom they had a great inferiority complex."
The seeds of the "hyperMaoism" behind many of the brutal excesses of the
Khmer Rouge regime were apparently sown almost a decade before the fall of Phnom
Penh, during a clandestine 1966 visit by Pol Pot to China.
"[Pot] must have been impressed by what he saw ... some of the measures introduced
in China at the time, for example the partial evacuation of cities, 'storming attacks'
on economic problems ... were later adopted by the Red Khmer," writes David
Chandler in Brother Number One. "Chinese style purges of 'class enemies' were
also widespread in Democratic Kampuchea, and Cambodia's economic ambitions were described
as the Great Leap Forward, maha laut proh, a phrase borrowed from the extravagant
industrialization program launched in China in the 1950s."
While indicating that official Chinese reaction to DK polices were supportive rather
than cautionary, Cambodia scholar Steve Heder dismisses suggestions Pol Pot was consciously
seeking to emulate the Maoist frenzy unleashed in China in the late 1950s.
"Of course, Pol Pot was enamored of the Great Leap Forward and received some
encouragement from certain currents in China for trying to carry it out in Cambodia,"
said Heder. "But the internal records ... show that Pol Pot saw himself not
as a successor to Mao but as someone who was returning to and revitalizing the only
genuine revolutionary tradition: Stalin's development of Leninism."
By the time of Mao's death in Sep 1976, saner elements in China's leadership had
begun to have doubts about the utility of the increasingly radical policies of its
"Even before the death of Mao, Khmer Rouge foreign policy had little in common
with the increasingly pragmatic, realpolitik approach to the world being fostered
by Zhou Enlai," Morris writes. "Especially after the death of Mao, China
probably saw Khmer Rouge foreign policy as dangerously self-destructive [and] also
saw Khmer Rouge foreign policies as dangerously provocative ... the radicalism of
its client an embarrassment and an impediment to [China's] broader strategic goals."
In spite of such perceived disillusionment with Democratic Kampuchea among the Chinese
leadership, the hands-on assistance provided by China throughout the DK regime suggests
an enthusiasm and support for Khmer Rouge policies that could only have emboldened
the DK leadership and encouraged them to stay their murderous course.
Although China was one of seven socialist nations permitted to have diplomatic relations
with Democratic Kampuchea, the sheer numbers of Chinese advisors on the ground across
Cambodia far outweighed that of Vietnam, North Korea, Albania, Laos, Cuba or Yugoslavia
According to Ben Kiernan in The Pol Pot Regime, the number of Chinese technical advisors
in Democratic Kampuchea reached 15,000 by the end of 1978. While Heder describes
the figure as "highly inflated", he suggests that the number of Chinese
advisors in Cambodia during DK was "a few thousand at any one time".
In an interview with Kiernan, an elderly Chinese diplomat posted to Phnom Penh during
Democratic Kampuchea conceded that by 1976 the Chinese government believed massacres
were occurring under the Khmer Rouge.
"We heard about violence," the diplomat told Kiernan. "We did guess
many were dying in the countryside at the hands of the local functionaries."
The diplomat's attempt to distance Chinese nationals from direct first-hand knowledge
or even participation in the deaths of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge is disingenuous
Stationed at industrial facilities and building projects throughout Cambodia, Chinese
technicians were witness to and arguably complicit in acts of forced labor, starvation
and murder that constituted inseparable components of the Khmer Rouge work ethic.
In her 1995 Ethnographic Survey of Cambodia produced by Cambodia's Center for Academic
Study, Penny Edwards documents the reports of ethnic-Chinese survivors of the "death
airport" forced labor project in Kampong Chhnang regarding the callous indifference
of mainland Chinese technical advisors to the plight of the Khmer laborers.
Edwards notes that in response to pleas for assistance and an easing of the project's
backbreaking labor that claimed the lives of thousands, the Chinese advisors responded
by exhorting them with the revolutionary refrain of "Endure! Endure!".
"[It's justified] to say that the Chinese [in Cambodia during the DK regime]
were guilty of the sin of omission at least [as] they were present in some locations
where they could have exercised at least some moderating influence, had they wanted
to do so," she said.
"But I think that most of the Chinese advisors were products of the Maoist system
anyway, so that they would not have had any humanitarian impulses, or at least no
motivation to express them."
Heder, however, is more cautious in attributing a portion of responsibility for the
crimes of Democratic Kampuchea to its Chinese advisors and supporters.
"...The Chinese were prepared to support DK as an anti-Soviet bulwark in Southeast
Asia, regardless of its internal policies, so in that sense China is implicated in
DK's crimes like, for example, France is in the genocide in Rwanda," Heder explained.
"But to suggest that China encouraged those crimes would be an exaggeration
and to suggest that it somehow scripted or participated [in] them would be an outright