For many, the visit by China’s President Jiang Zemin next week is a signal of the success of Chinese people in Cambodia.
But the political implications of the visit and the history of Cambodia’s relationship with its powerful—and sometimes domineering—neighbor is something many people don’t want to talk about.
“I don’t know about politics,” said a mainland Chinese woman living in Cambodia, who asked not to be named.
“I don’t care about politics,” said a Chinese-Cambodian soldier who fought the communists under Lon Nol in the early 1970s. “Politics are for the high officials, not for the people.”
The child of Chinese immigrants, the soldier grew up with a foot in each of two communities. He went to both Chinese and Khmer schools, becoming fluent in both languages. He became a professional kickboxer, touring with the national team during the last three years of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s rule.
He worships at Chinese and Khmer temples and celebrates holidays for both communities. “I like to eat,” he explained gruffly.
But his allegiance has always been to Cambodia.
He tugs at the sleeve of his military jacket.
“I wear this uniform because I am Cambodian,” he said. “Just because I speak the language does not mean that I am Chinese.”
But the Cambodian-Chinese owner of a posh Khmer restaurant on Phnom Penh’s Mao Tse-tung Boulevard feels differently.
“Common Chinese-Cambodians are very patriotic,” said Khow Say Cheng. “They will always be Chinese.”
Although Chinese here feel loyal to Cambodia, they are also loyal to Beijing. Khow Say Cheng speaks with satisfaction of the Cambodian government’s affirmation of the one-China policy.
“Those Taiwanese, they can do business here, but it is not possible for Chinese-Cambodians to change their opinions of the mother country,” he said.
China can’t be held responsible for the Khmer Rouge regime, he said. “This is the tendency of history,” he said of the ultra-Maoist revolution that killed several members of his own family. “It cannot possibly be avoided.”
Although he is first-generation Cambodian, Khow Say Cheng has worked hard to keep his Chinese identity. He brought up his own children the same way, sending the two eldest to attend university in Beijing.
“Maybe in other countries [Chinese identity] is not so strong, but here it will be carried on,” he said.
But for the head of a major Phnom Penh retail chain, being identified as Chinese has not been a matter of choice.
“You say I’m not Chinese. Then what am I?” demanded the retailer, who asked not to be named. He pushed up a sleeve of his business shirt and jabbed a finger at his forearm. “My skin, my hair, my eyes. I can’t be anything else.”
His parents left China for Cambodia just before the communist victory in 1949. Twenty-five years later, the family was caught up in the Pol Pot regime, driven out of Phnom Penh to forced labor camps in the countryside.
“[My parents] were the generation that fled communism in China,” he said tossing up his hands and smiling grimly. “Then I was born here and we got hit by the communists in Cambodia.”
He was taken away from his family and sent with other children to be indoctrinated in the new regime’s ideology. From the age of 12 to 16, he was in “darkness,” his thinking was shaped by his masters, his allegiance turned against his own parents. It was a technique the Khmer Rouge hierarchy had learned from the leaders of the Cultural Revolution in China.
“In China there is a saying: ‘No one is closer to you than the leader of your nation, not even your parents,’ ” he said. “That’s communism.”
Eventually the family fled to the US where they spent 10 years in exile. At first he hated China, blaming it for supporting a genocidal regime and for promulgating ideology that shattered his life.
But as he got older, he began to soften his views.
Everyone was ignorant about what was happening in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge—including China, he said. China might have acted differently, tried to avert a catastrophe here. But for a country with a billion people at home and many million more scattered about the world, its negligence is understandable.
“[China] is like a parent with so many kids,” he said. “It’s hard to take care of all of them.”