Two Cambodian high school students poke curiously through an illustrated edition of the Chinese classic, Journey to the West, at Cambodia Chinese Bookstore in Phnom Penh.
Although the girls can’t read the stylish calligraphy, they seem enthralled nonetheless.
Customers of the shop, located in the capital’s Tuol Kork district, often don’t read or speak Chinese, general manager Liu Minhui said. But this hasn’t deterred them from taking an interest in the largely Chinese-language products.
The bookstore, which opened in November, is a more than US$3 million investment from China’s Xinzhi Books, making it the world’s first Chinese operated and invested bookstore outside mainland China, according to Liu Minhui.
Since 2007, Cambodia has seen a rapid increase in cultural investments from China, a move experts said is aimed at improving China’s image and influence in the region. Those investments pale in comparison to the more than US$700 million Cambodia owes China in concessional loans, which fund road and hydropower projects, and arms purchases.
Still, some soft power Chinese investments such as language schools could help shape the political and business environment between the two countries in the future, experts said. “[China] has had many years of contact with Cambodia. I think there is a real potential in the future for Chinese culture here,” Liu Minhui said. “China has already become a world power. Very soon, I think we will see Chinese culture become more and more popular abroad.”
The bookstore would be the first of several Xinzhi investments in Cambodia. The upper stories of the building in the quiet Phnom Penh suburb will become a Chinese language school and a business meeting venue for Chinese business people in the Kingdom, Liu Minhui said, although a dollar figure on the investment had yet to be determined.
Xinzhi Books, a private company from China’s Yunnan province, also planned to open branches in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and, eventually, New York City, he added.
The past 20 years have seen a return of Chinese cultural influence in Southeast Asia, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, United States.
Many of the soft power investments are meant to convince countries in the region that China’s rise will be peaceful and benign, he said.
“The end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy in the region provided an opportunity for China to renew its cultural influence in the region, which the government hopes to translate into political and foreign policy clout as well,” he said via email yesterday.
In 2009, the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute opened its doors to college students at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. Since then it has launched branches at the Ministry of National Defense and two other Cambodian universities, Director Chea Munyrith said yesterday.
The institutes have about 1,000 students and operated on $90,000 of Chinese investment in 2011, Chea Munyrith said, adding that they primarily teach Mandarin Chinese.
China’s projection of soft power is generally limited to language training and the marketing of cultural products such as books and movies, Yanzhong Huang said. The long-term effect of the programs on the foreign policy of recipient countries has yet to be determined. “We still don’t know how effective these soft power resources contribute to a pro-China foreign policy in Southeast Asia,” he said, adding that aggressive Chinese self-promotion in places like Time Square in New York city has had mixed results.
Political implications aside, employment opportunities attract Cambodian students to Chinese language and culture, Chea Munyrith said. The recent increase in bilateral trade with China – which is expected to hit $2 billion this year – has many studying Mandarin to find positions at Chinese companies.
“Chinese people are coming to Cambodia to open businesses and banks. It’s an opportunity for Cambodians to find a job,” he said.
Chinese language schools in Cambodia are an economic requirement given the increase in commerce between the two countries, Zhou Liyun, director of the DHY Chinese Language Center at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said yesterday.
The center, which opened in 2007 and is a partnership between Chinese universities, has had about 1,150 students since opening and offers a bachelors degree in Chinese. The language learning resources are building blocks for dialogue, Zhou Liyun said.
“We’re giving people more opportunity to communicate,” he said.