For a taste of the seismic social and political changes under way in today's People's
Republic of China, go no further than the Royal Villa in central Siem Reap.
Waiting for the Great (tourism) Leap Forward - Dong Shiqing is China's man
in Siem Reap
There you'll find friendly manager Dong Shiqing, who grew up in a China in which
capitalism was taboo and foreign travel just a dream.
Three decades later, the 37- year-old Dong runs a hotel/restaurant/massage operation
that's as great a leap forward from the austere Maoism of his youth as one can imagine.
But a twist of fate that would cause even The Great Helmsman to turn over in his
mausoleum in Tienanmen Square is the fact that Dong is an industrious Chinese civil
servant and the Royal Villa a venture capital investment of China's state-owned China
International Construction Company (CICC).
Dong obviously relishes the paradoxes of modern China that enable an agent of the
world's largest defiantly socialist state to dabble in the tourism economy of Siem
But Dong is quick to credit the Chinese leader who he says is responsible for allowing
him to buy and manage the Royal Villa in the name of the PRC.
"Deng Shiao Ping," Dong says gravely. "He was the one who introduced
the freedoms that have made businesses like this possible."
Dong took over the Royal Villa in November 2000 with $10,000 of CICC funds.
Having previously worked for the CICC in Cambodia prior to the July 1997 coup, Dong
says his experience and knowledge of the Cambodian economy and its potential for
expansion helped sway CICC's decision to go ahead with the investment.
"Back in China [after July 1997] when we were discussing overseas investment
opportunities, we decided that Cambodia was still an excellent place to invest,"
he said. "The country is developing very quickly, particularly in the tourist
And while Cambodia is now host to a regular parade of Chinese officials cementing
ties with aid and infrastructure development assistance packages that include everything
from water purification facilities to road reconstruction, Dong's Royal Villa marks
China's entrance into the country's tourist industry.
That debut, Dong says, has been anything but easy. With funding for only three full-time
Cambodian staff, a huge proportion of the day-to-day responsibilities for running
the hotel fell on his shoulders.
"It wasn't easy at first - in the beginning I almost wanted to give up because
it was so difficult," he said. "I've had to do everything myself, from
front desk, to driver to translator."
But such challenges apparently pale in comparison to the difficulties involved in
starting and maintaining a successful business in China.
"China's so big and there are so many people wanting to do business there,"
Dong said of the disadvantages of entrepreneurship in China.
Unlike many Western investors in Cambodia, Dong is surprisingly philosophical about
the influence that endemic official Cambodian corruption can have on the local business
"Corruption exists everywhere in different degrees," he said. "In
China there is more of a rule of law, but giving the [local] police a bit of money
now and then isn't a big problem."
Dong predicts that the growing awareness in China of the relative ease of doing business
in Cambodia will spark a flood of Chinese state and private investment in Cambodia
over the coming years.
"This is just the first of many Chinese companies that will come here to do
business [in the tourist sector]," Dong said. "In China there are so many
people who want to get out to invest overseas, and they see real opportunities here."
Boosting the interest of Chinese investors in Cambodia's tourist sector is a nascent
Chinese middle class with both disposable income and a curiosity about Cambodia.
"Many Chinese people want to come and visit Cambodia because they have an interest
in the country's history and culture," Dong explained.
Dong credits the Nov 2000 visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin as a decisive factor
in creating a new awareness among the people of China about the realities of modern
"Traditionally Chinese people have had an image of Cambodia as a dangerous place,
filled with land mines," he said, "but ever since Jiang Zemin's visit,
there is more interest and increasing numbers of Chinese tourists to Cambodia."
Those tourists will most likely make their way to Dong's Royal Villa thanks to an
official rating of approval from the Chinese government that lists the Royal as a
recommended facility for Chinese tourists.
"We're listed as a shr yi jiah (a number one choice of hotel) for government
employees and employees of state-run enterprises," he said.
Like other Siem Reap hotel operators, Dong looks forward to the completion of the
Siem Reap Airport expansion that is expected to increase greatly both the frequency
of flights and the size of aircraft that the airport is currently capable of handling.
Dong mulls the prospect of a 100% occupancy rate "within two years" alongside
plans to permanently relocate his wife and son, who have remained behind in China,
But like any middle-aged Chinese whose memories of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution
and Cambodia's more recent instability remain painfully fresh, Dong hedges his optimism
with a stoical acceptance that the worst may yet lie ahead.
"In my heart I believe that Cambodia is very stable," Dong says of his
hopes for the future - "but only if there is not a return to chaos."