Phlong Vichet worked at Chinese-language newspapers in Cambodia for more than a decade, and has watched with growing interest as Cambodia and China have strengthened ties in the past few years.
Vichet watched as China began sending more and more tourists to Cambodia, increasing its support for the smaller nation’s political decisions and investing in the country’s construction and real estate sectors, particularly in Phnom Penh and the coastal tourism hub of Sihanoukville.
Last month, Vichet decided he should do more than just watch. He quit his job at the Commercial News, one of the three main Chinese-language newspapers in Phnom Penh, and launched a new, online-only venture called Cambodia China Times, or CC Times.
“The number of Chinese investors and Chinese tourists coming to Cambodia is increasing rapidly, which also increases the demand for Chinese-language news that is fast and reliable,” Vichet said in an interview earlier this week. “We dream to make our website the largest media outlet for Chinese readers in Cambodia.”
China’s rapid rise in the Kingdom has shaken up the traditionally staid Chinese-language media scene, and Vichet is not the only one looking to take advantage of the changing landscape.
The country’s three major Chinese-language newspapers – the Sin Chew Daily, the Jian Hua Daily and Commercial News Cambodia – have been forced to confront a new crop of digital competitors in recent years. Dozens of unofficial Facebook pages, blogs and WeChat accounts providing Chinese-language news about Cambodia have sprouted up, challenging the newspapers’ monopoly on news.
Established outlets are entering the fray as well. The popular news site Fresh News, which serves as a mouthpiece for Cambodia’s government and has long maintained a relatively small English-language website, just launched a Chinese-language version of its website on Monday.
“We will publish in Chinese because we have seen that in the market in Cambodia, there are many Chinese investors who come to invest in our country,” Lim Cheavutha, CEO of Fresh News, told The Post before the launch.
But while digital disruption has affected nearly every print media outlet in the world, Cambodia’s Chinese-language papers are sheltered from some of the more costly effects.
The rise in competitors has been accompanied by a sharp rise in audience and readership, as Chinese people have flocked to Cambodia in record numbers in recent years. According to the Association of Khmer-Chinese in Cambodia (AKCC), approximately 20,000 Chinese nationals currently live in Cambodia.
The increased levels of tourism and immigration are paying off, according to Sok Huy, editor-in-chief of the Jian Hua Daily.
“Our performance in 2017 is better than 2016 and the years before,” Huy said, though he declined to give circulation or readership numbers. “Revenue from advertisement is better than the last few years, although we still do not make a profit.”
Chinese-language news outlets, like much of the Khmer-language press in Cambodia, rely on powerful local business interests to subsidise their operations. The Jian Hua Daily and Commercial News are both tied to banking magnate Pung Kheav Se, a well-connected Cambodian businessman of Chinese descent.
The Commercial News is owned outright by Kheav Se, the founder of Canadia Bank and CEO of the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation, while the Jian Hua Daily receives funds from the AKCC, which is headed by Kheav Se. The Sin Chew Daily, the other major paper, is owned by a Malaysian national.
In recent years, Huy said his staff had noticed a trend of readers increasingly moving away from reading the Jian Hua’s print product, instead preferring to get their news from its website.
An employee at the Sin Chew Daily, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media, reported a similar move in readership from print to digital, and after the company boosted its online operation, he also began to notice an uptick in interest from readers outside Cambodia.
“More and more Chinese people want to know information about Cambodia,” the staffer said. “Every time there is news related to high-ranking officials in Cambodia, or related to Chinese people in the country, major Chinese media outlets based in China always use our information and rebroadcast it.”
If the additional interest and money flowing into the Chinese-language press helps professionalise the sector, it could have beneficial effects for both countries, according to Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.
Chhean Nariddh pointed to the press conference held by the Chinese Embassy earlier this month, where the Chinese ambassador encouraged Cambodia to crack down on any Chinese citizens who were misbehaving in the country. That may have been due to the Chinese-language press reporting on the rising tensions between Khmer and Chinese businessmen in Sihanoukville, Chhean Nariddh said.
“Chinese diplomats can know the real situation in Cambodia, the issues confronting people from the two nations, so that they can help to find an appropriate solution on time,” he said.
Chhean Nariddh also noted that China’s economy is growing as its political clout increases, so a trustworthy and reliable Chinese-language press would be more important than ever moving forward.
Entrepreneurs like Vichet may not have to wait to see the benefits of China’s rise, as his gamble appears to be paying off already. Since its soft launch in January, the Cambodia China Times’ Facebook page has amassed 20,000 followers, while its website boasts around 4,000 visitors per day – impressive numbers for a niche media outlet in a relatively small country.
And as China continues to flex its economic muscle in the region, Vichet predicted his numbers would continue to grow.
“The future of Chinese investment and tourism in Cambodia shows promise,” he said. “I believe that there is a huge potential in running online, Chinese-language news for the growing readership.”