The thousands of Chinese technical experts living in Cambodia during the Pol Pot-era were largely ignorant of the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge at the time, the author of a new study released last month claims.
The Chinese advisers—whose numbers historians put at somewhere between 1,000 and 15,000 —“did not, nor could not, know the extent of the killings that were taking place, even as they were aware that something sinister was afoot,” writes Cornell University professor Andrew Mertha in “Surrealpolitik: The Experience of Chinese Experts in Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979.”
Based on interviews with retired Chinese technicians who oversaw agriculture, infrastructure and energy projects undertaken by the communist Khmer Rouge, Mr. Mertha argues that the Chinese lived a comfortable existence far removed from that of the Cambodians they supervised.
Chinese experts working at the oil refinery in Sihanoukville were housed separate from Cambodian laborers in the original living quarters of the French-owned Elf Aquitaine oil company, which built the refinery in the late 1960s, Mr. Mertha explains.
At the Krang Leav airbase in Kompong Chhnang, engineers stayed in a building 3 km east of the site and had no contact with Cambodians except during the day.
The massive Kompong Chhnang airport was built by thousands of Cambodian prisoners, many of whom were executed nearby. Despite its bloody history, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday announced plans to build a new international airport at the site.
Even when visiting Phnom Penh, Mr. Mertha says, the Chinese traveled in pairs, staying two to a room at guesthouses and at the Chinese Embassy.
“They recalled walking into any store in Phnom Penh and simply taking as many bottles of beer and Coca-Cola as they wanted,” he writes.
“They did not fully realize that because the CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] had emptied the cities immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, urban areas throughout Cambodia were in a state of suspended animation—that these beverages had been sitting there undisturbed for years.”
“They did not realize what was happening in the rest of the country,” agreed Cambodia-based historian Henri Locard. “It was two worlds: heaven and Earth…heaven and hell, actually.”
But the Chinese were also disinclined to question the capital’s emptiness or the regular disappearance of Cambodian laborers at job sites, Mr. Mertha argues, having lived though China’s own Communist political purges during the Cultural Revolution.
“These Chinese technicians in Democratic Kampuchea almost certainly felt an uncomfortable sense of deja vu: many of them were members of what had been for decades a politically targeted class in China,” he writes. “The best way to survive was to do their jobs and not ask any questions,” said Mr. Locard of the technicians, adding that Chinese diplomats stationed at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh would have been less able to maintain ignorance of the genocide under way.
Sun Hao, the Chinese ambassador at the time, “could not, not have known,” Mr. Locard said. “For the ambassador, it would have been impossible.”
“At the very top, there were party-to-party relations that were very intimate.”