The Chinese Embassy acknowledged yesterday that some of its citizens were contributing to criminality and adverse economic effects in Cambodia, attributing the issues to a few bad apples, while also touting the overall benefits of Chinese investment in the country.
The remarks came during a two-hour press conference hosted by the normally tight-lipped embassy in Phnom Penh following a series of media reports highlighting issues Cambodian businesspeople and officials say are caused or worsened by an influx of Chinese investment and immigration in Cambodia – particularly in the coastal town of Sihanoukville.
“The Chinese government has been informing Chinese who go overseas to countries like Cambodia that they need to strictly obey the laws of Cambodia, respect their traditions and communicate with the people peacefully,” Ambassador Xiong Bo told reporters through a translator yesterday.
“While the majority of Chinese people can follow this order from the Chinese government, a small amount of low-educated people break the law in Cambodia,” he added.
Sihanoukville in particular has been a hotspot for tensions between Chinese and Cambodian business owners, with locals saying they have been evicted or pushed out by richer Chinese investors and rising land prices, and police noting an uptick in illegal activity such as money laundering, human trafficking and illegal casinos.
Read more: Big trouble in little China
In response, the Cambodian government set up an inter-ministerial task force last month to address the issues, and the Chinese ambassador yesterday urged authorities to take the necessary legal measures to stamp out illegal activity involving Chinese citizens.
“The Chinese Embassy, the Chinese Government, calls on Cambodian law enforcement institutions to strengthen their enforcement, and we are committed to working together with Cambodia to build Cambodia’s rule of law,” he said, adding that despite the close relationship between the two country’s governments, China “appeals to law enforcement institutions in Cambodia to take more strict action against those who violate the law”.
He also maintained that the misbehaving Chinese citizens were a small percentage of the more than 1 million Chinese tourists who visit Cambodia each year, and criticised them for harming the reputation of all Chinese people in the country.
China has long been Cambodia’s top trading partner, and the two countries have grown politically closer in recent years. Prime Minister Hun Sen stymied an attempt by Asean leaders to criticise China’s position in the contested South China Sea in 2016, and the Chinese government has provided public support for the Cambodian government’s widely criticised dissolution of its main political rival in November last year.
Business ties between the two countries have also grown in recent years. China overtook Vietnam to become the top country of origin for tourists to Cambodia last year, and Ambassador Xiong said yesterday that bilateral trade between the two nations rose to $5.7 billion last year, up from $4.8 billion the year before.
At the end of the press conference, the ambassador also took a swipe at media reports that suggested Chinese money flowing into Cambodia was part of a money-laundering operation, calling them “political” and untrue, a position also espoused by Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The remarks were an apparent reference to a New York Times story published last month that quoted Bangkok-based political risk consultant George McLeod as saying, “I am convinced that laundered money from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is a substantial portion of property investment in Phnom Penh.”