Prime Minister Hun Sen used a speech inaugurating a Chinese-funded university in Kratie on Wednesday to defend Chinese investment in Cambodia, which has come under fire in recent months both for its adverse economic side effects and its perceived potential for political influence.
The surging Chinese investment in the Kingdom has been criticised for a multitude of reasons, including attendant environmental damage, human rights abuses and its tendency to create a closed economic loop that does not benefit Cambodians, but Hun Sen insisted yesterday that it was a force for good in the Kingdom.
“There are some opinions that are fully ill-intended,” he said to an audience that included China’s ambassador to Cambodia. “They criticise Chinese companies, Chinese people in Cambodia.”“First of all, 1.2 million Chinese tourists bring a lot of income,” he said.
The Cambodian government has grown apart from traditional Western development partners in recent years, a process that was accelerated by a political crackdown that saw the main opposition party dissolved last year and its leader arrested for treason. Hun Sen has bragged that China will fill in any gaps left behind by Western donors pulling aid.
The premier’s comments may have been a response to his long-time political rival, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had disparaged the government’s relationship with China in a speech on Saturday.
“The dictator cannot expect support from the people so he turns to ask for aid from neighbouring countries,” Rainsy told supporters in France, saying that the overreliance on China is tantamount to a loss of “sovereignty”.
Rainsy also accused China of taking Cambodia’s land and resources.
In Wednesday’s remarks, however, the prime minister insisted Cambodia needs Chinese investment and specialists to increase development, because the Kingdom lacks resources and expertise. Hun Sen also reminded the audience that the Chinese – including his wife’s ancestors – have been coming to Cambodia for generations.
But evidence suggests that Chinese investment comes at a cost. A recent report by an American think tank warned that China’s investment in foreign countries – including a massive development in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province – is far from equally beneficial, and usually serves the ulterior motive of expanding China’s economic and military interests.
In an email Wednesday night, Rainsy reiterated these points, calling Cambodia the "silent loser" in its allegedly "win-win" relationship with China.
He said Cambodia does not benefit from Chinese tourism, because most tourists frequent Chinese-owned companies which bring in Chinese labourers rather than hiring locals. The benefit "hardly outweighs the ecological and social costs" according to Rainsy.
"China generously gives with one hand but she greedily takes back with the other hand," he said, calling Hun Sen's reliance on China short-sighted and "reckless".
Even officials within the Cambodian government have been critical, with the governor of Preah Sihanouk province complaining that an influx of Chinese visitors and investors had created a closed economy that excluded local workers and businesses.
The influx also came with an increase in money laundering, unlicensed casinos and human trafficking. The Chinese Embassy itself acknowledged the issue shortly thereafter, and urged the government to pull no punches in dealing with it.
Still, Chinese money has contributed significantly to infrastructure development. Hun Sen on Wednesday pledged China would fund a bridge across the Mekong River in Kratie province in 2019.
“So I hope the people in Kratie will vote for the Cambodian People’s Party in order for me to lead the country and build that bridge,” he said.
China supplied $10 million for the Kratie University, according to Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who spoke after Hun Sen. The Cambodian government contributed another $2 million.
Miguel Chanco, lead Asean analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said both Rainsy and Hun Sen were “making valid points” about Chinese investment.
“Concerns about potential risks to sovereignty are certainly valid, but I wouldn’t exactly classify it as an immediate threat,” he said.
However, he added that Cambodia had “backed itself into a corner” by turning away from the Western world during its ongoing political crackdown.
He said Hun Sen was right that Cambodia “could use the help of Chinese investment” for now, but that need is declining.
Cambodian political analyst Hang Vitou said Chinese investment has limited transparency and mostly exists to line the pockets of the ruling class, at the expense of the environment and poorer Cambodians.
“They do not care about human rights or democracy,” he said. “The question is, does their help provide benefits to rich or poor Cambodians?”