Asia's Longest-Serving Strongman Shows Power of China's Cash

Updated on
  • Cambodian government moves to dissolve main opposition party
  • China has become biggest investor in Cambodia over past decade

Sitting last month in the Phnom Penh villa that houses Cambodia’s main opposition party, Mu Sochua searched for a way to fight back against one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.

Her boss in the Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose face adorns a banner hanging in front of the building, was in jail over accusations that he plotted with the U.S. to seize power. Independent media outlets closed down due to government pressure. And a pro-democracy non-profit group chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was expelled from the country.

Mu Sochua

Photographer: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

Less than two weeks later, Mu Sochua fled Cambodia over fears of being arrested. Now her party faces dissolution, a move that would all but ensure Prime Minister Hun Sen wins an election set for next year to extend his more than three-decade rule in the Southeast Asian nation.

A few decades ago, the U.S. and its allies could use financial leverage over aid-dependent Cambodia to nurture a democracy forged after Pol Pot’s genocide wiped out about a fifth of the population. But these days the biggest spender is China, which has focused more on securing Cambodia’s backing in regional affairs than its embrace of free and fair elections.

Hun Sen’s ability to clamp down on his political opponents with little fear of repercussions shows the consequences of China’s rising clout in the region coupled with President Donald Trump’s moves to de-emphasize the importance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Still, Cambodia’s opposition is hopeful that Western nations will take punitive action against Hun Sen.

“China can give Hun Sen money but not legitimacy,” Mu Sochua, a human rights activist who studied social work at University of California, Berkeley, said in a Whatsapp message while en route to Morocco. “Hun Sen will run a high risk of economic sanctions.”

‘Without Lights’

For Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which controls about 55 percent of 123 seats in the National Assembly, all this cash from China is helping to boost growth in a nation where per capita income is among the lowest in Asia. The International Monetary Fund projects that Cambodia’s economy will grow 6.9 percent in 2017.

“If we waited around for the U.S. or Canada, we’d be without lights,” CPP lawmaker and spokesman Sok Eysan said in an interview. “We went from four million people under Pol Pot to 15 million now, so we have a lot of needs, and we welcome China’s help.”

China has risen to become Cambodia’s single biggest donor and foreign investor, and eclipsed the U.S. as its top trading partner in 2014. It sends more tourists to see Cambodia’s famed temples than any other country. President Xi Jinping has canceled roughly $90 million of debt -- in contrast to the U.S., which is still demanding that Cambodia pay about $500 million in loans from the Vietnam War era.

The Chinese-funded Stung Russey Chrum Krom hydro-electric power station in Koh Kong province.

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

China’s ambassador recently hailed the “strong momentum” in relations with Cambodia, saying his nation’s companies have built a third of Cambodia’s highways and more than a dozen major bridges and hydropower stations. China funded an elaborate office building for Cambodia’s cabinet, and has started work on a new national stadium.

More is coming. A Chinese private equity firm recently cut a $1.5 billion deal to build a “Cambodia-Chinese Friendship City.” Cambodia’s biggest conglomerate, The Royal Group of Cambodia, recently partnered with state-run China Huaneng Group to build hydropower plants.

As Beijing has spent more in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s government has become a reliable advocate for China’s foreign-policy goals. This has been most evident in meetings of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which Cambodia has repeatedly watered down efforts to criticize China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Hun Sen is Beijing’s wunderkind,” said Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales who also provides political analysis for companies doing business in Southeast Asia. “Chinese investments and businesses are in safe hands.”

China’s ambassador in Cambodia didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Hun Sen, center, poses for a picture in Phnom Penh on Sept. 6.

Photographer: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images

Color Revolutions

China’s money also comes without any requirements to boost democratic institutions that are normally tied to aid money to Cambodia. The two countries agreed last month to form a research group that would investigate the causes of “color revolutions,” referring to movements that used disputed elections to topple governments in the former Soviet Union and Middle East.

Hun Sen has spent more than 32 years in power, putting him alongside the world’s longest serving non-royal leaders including Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Studies show that more Cambodians now get their news from Facebook and other Internet sites than television or radio, making it harder for the government to control information heading into next July’s election.

Hun Sen accelerated a campaign against the opposition last month with the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was accused of conspiring with the U.S. to seize power. U.S. Ambassador William A. Heidt said the allegations lacked “a shred of serious or credible evidence” and joined the European Union in calling for Kem Sokha’s release.

Kem Sokha during a rally on June 2.

Photographer: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images

Tensions have gotten worse, with Hun Sen calling off a search for the bodies of American soldiers from the Vietnam War era. In an Oct. 3 statement, Senators John McCain and Dick Durban denounced Hun Sen’s “brutal crackdown” and urged the Trump administration to put abusive Cambodian officials on a list that could bar them from entering the U.S.

‘Cooked for Soup’

Hun Sen’s government has been unapologetic, comparing its battle with the opposition to a boxing match or a cockfight -- two popular forms of entertainment in Cambodia. A spokesman previously likened Hun Sen’s crackdown on the media with Trump’s disdain for so-called “fake news.”

“If this were cockfighting, the loser would have already been killed and cooked for soup,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said with a grin.

For Mu Sochua, the risk of heading back to a Cambodian prison was enough to make her flee. She spent seven days in jail in 2014 for her role in protests, and this time opted to follow dozens of her colleagues into exile.

“Must go on,” she said via Whatsapp when asked about her plans. “I’m using my voice from outside.”

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