Two days after anti-Chinese mobs rampaged through the industrial zone close to Ho Chi Minh City where he works, Lin, a Chinese national, fled the country wearing a hat with the Vietnamese flag on it, a face mask and a T-shirt with the words “I Love Vietnam”.
The printing factory worker was heading west to Cambodia, and after having narrowly escaped violent rioters, he wasn’t taking any chances of being recognised as Chinese.
“It was incredibly frightening.… They were setting things on fire everywhere [at the factories]. I saw everything on fire, so I hid and then escaped to Ho Chi Minh City for two days before coming to Cambodia,” he told the Post yesterday, as he and a dozen other men with similar tales gathered at a Chinese restaurant in Phnom Penh.
“We have heard that one of our friends was killed [in the rioting], but we have no evidence to prove this yet.”
Since nationalist protests broke out in more than a third of Vietnam’s provinces last week against China’s decision to move an oil rig into contested South China Sea waters, ethnic Chinese have crossed into the Kingdom in droves.
The mass exodus has seen more than 1,600 Chinese and Taiwanese pass through Svay Rieng province’s Bavet border crossing in less than a week.
Like Lin, who refused to reveal his full name out of fear, many Chinese who have crossed the border remain on edge, worried about friends and colleagues they left behind and the fate of their jobs and businesses.
Cambodia has provided a safe haven for the temporary asylum seekers, who have arrived on tourist or business visas, but that doesn’t mean they are happy to be here.
“We know Cambodia and China are good friends, so it’s peaceful here,” said Zhou Yong Jun, a chain-smoking, stocky 38-year-old who is employed at an import-export firm in Vietnam and whose sense of frustration is palpable.
“I don’t feel like going anywhere or sightseeing, because I just had to run away from so many people to save my life.
“We pay tax and invest in Vietnam, so why did Vietnamese people do this to us?”
The Chinese restaurant where Lin and Yong Jun spoke with the Post sits on garment factory-lined Veng Sreng Boulevard in Phnom Penh.
The restaurant had been turned into a temporary health centre by the First Center Poly Clinic, a partly Chinese-owned business, to offer free health check-ups to Chinese who have fled Vietnam and may have been injured in the rioting.
“I’m also Chinese, and so I have to help people of the same blood,” said clinic manager Tang Hua, pointing to a large red and yellow banner on the wall that says “All Chinese People Are One Family”.
“They are already afraid and insecure after their experiences in Vietnam. So the purpose of our clinic is to help them feel at home and support them however we can.”
Most of the men here worked at or near the Singapore-Vietnam Industrial Parks in Vietnam’s Binh Duong province, near Ho Chi Minh City, where four factories were set on fire during riots last Tuesday.
Binh Doung province is home to a total of 28 industrial parks and a haven for foreign investment.
The Vietnamese government says that the situation is now under control and has pledged to protect investors, though some remain sceptical.
Across town, in a plush VIP room at a Chinese seafood restaurant opposite the Chinese Embassy, a senior manager from a leading Chinese appliance maker who declined to be named said he was still scared his company’s factory will be torched.
His firm decided to let their 700 or so Vietnamese workers leave the factory when several thousand protesters showed up outside last Tuesday and forced their way through the gates.
Watching the chaos were close to 20 Chinese managers and office staff, hiding on the third floor of their nearby office building, which was then attacked by men armed with iron rods, who laid waste to the bottom two floors.After their Vietnamese cook managed to convince the mob that no Chinese were left on-site, the group escaped.
And while they blame only a minority of Vietnamese for the violence, they don’t believe the government did enough to protect them.
“It was too slow [the Vietnamese government’s response]. Right now the Vietnamese government has made a promise to protect investors in Vietnam, but we will see. We have lost nearly $2 million [in damages] without accounting for the few months it will take until our factory can start up again.”
Tran Van Thong, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, defended his government yesterday, saying that dozens of “opportunistic” lawbreakers had been arrested and that all Chinese would be protected. “The Vietnamese authorities and people . . . did not intend to mistreat the Chinese people at all, but when the chaos erupted, those Chinese people feared for their safety and fled for personal security. They fled by themselves. We did not oust them from Vietnam.”
Cambodian government officials have welcomed the new arrivals on the basis that they will spend significant sums of money in the Kingdom.
The group at the seafood restaurant, who can afford to lavishly drink, dine and gamble, are certainly spending large sums.
But it’s likely the positive dividends for Cambodia’s already cosy relationship with China will outlast this minor economic boon.
“If the situation gets better, we will go back. Maybe even tomorrow,” the appliance firm manager said.
“This is not a holiday for us, because we are still so worried for the factory.”
A business partner chimed in to correct him.
“It’s a very sad holiday.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA