Anti-Chinese violence spreads to Phnom Penh, casting shadow on China-Cambodia ties

BY SILVI WRITER

Violence against Chinese nationals has spread from Cambodia’s coastal city of Sihanoukville to the capital Phnom Penh, casting shadows on the partnership between the two countries, and even to Beijing’s grandiose Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)

In Cambodia, safety is becoming a major concern for Chinese nationals, while large numbers of their peer countrymen have moved overseas following the deepening of the BRI, introduced by President Xi Jinping five years ago.

Cambodia, under current Prime Minister Hun Sen, is not just a partner of China, but also a key destination for Beijing’s overseas investment projects, some of which are strategically important.

The rise of anti-Chinese violence, most of which happened in Sihanoukville, in recent months, reflects the local population’s resentment against the new influx of Chinese residents, who were blamed to cause surging living costs and social problems, like gambling.

But it was the most recent attack in Phnom Penh that exacerbated safety concerns among the Chinese nationals.

A group of Chinese people, who just finished work, “barely escaped” attacks by “a gang of motorcyclists” at around 8pm on Dec 10 in Mao Zedong Boulevard, named after the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, in the center of Phnom Penh, 58cam.com, a Chinese-language website in Cambodia, reported, based on information provided by “more than one readers”.

The attack happened at a road junction which is just outside the Chinese embassy, the report said.

The unnamed sources reckoned it was “quite possible” the attack was a planned one on Chinese, according to 58cam.com.

“They said they had only heard of attacks against Chinese in Sihanoukville, but never thought it would happen in Phnom Penh,” the report continued. “They are all very scared.”

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Sihanoukville

Attacks have been more frequent in Sihanoukville, a once-sleepy city that has become a ballooning ‘enclave’ for Chinese-run casinos – despite gambling being banned, the Guardian said.

The southern coast of Cambodia is now home to $4.2bn worth of power plants and offshore oil operations all owned by Chinese companies.

The speed of development has left many locals unnerved. Some estimate that the Chinese make up almost 20 percent of the town’s population.

Of the total number of foreign arrivals in 2017, nearly 120,000 were Chinese – an increase of 126 percent year-on-year.

This has fuelled rising hostility among locals towards the new influx of Chinese residents. The two communities live side-by-side in Sihanoukville but rarely interact.

Angkor Daily, Cambodia’s Chinese news media, reported Dec 11 a Chinese woman was severely injured in an attack in the early hours of Dec 5.

But the local authority, in order not to bother the Chinese Embassy, said the women, who runs a massage shop in the beach town, was injured in traffic accident, according to the report.

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The embassy could not be reached for comment. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has in this month vowed his country would protect the safety of Chinese nationals overseas.

Wang made the comment after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, CFO of China’s tech giant Huawei, on Dec 1.

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Wang Yi, left, and Hun Sen

The Preah Sihanouk provincial police are set to send three men to court after they were arrested in on a weekend in late November for attacking three Chinese nationals, seriously injuring them, in two separate incidents.

According to police reports, the suspects last Tuesday night attacked one of the victims in Mittapheap district’s commune 3 with swords and sticks before fleeing the scene on two motorbikes, the Phnom Penh Post reported on Nov 27.

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They attacked two other Chinese nationals in the district’s commune 4 the next day.

Kol Phally, the deputy provincial police chief in charge of serious crimes, said on Monday that the trio intended to kill the victims for allegedly sexually abusing their girlfriends.

On Nov 22, a Chinese national was seriously injured after being chopped on the neck near the local zoo in Sihanoukville on Nov 20, according to 58cam.com. It didn’t follow with further reports about the status of the injured.

In July, China News Agency quote Jian Hua Daily, another Chinese newspaper in Cambodia, as saying four Chinese tourists were injured, though not fatally, by gun shots also in the beach town.

The report said the attack happened when the victims, who didn’t know their attackers, were having dinner in a Chinese restaurant.

Chinese vs Chinese too

But not all such attacks were done by the local people, some by Chinese nationals too.

Nine Chinese nationals were arrested in early December for holding and torturing two Chinese gamblers in Preah Sihanouk province, Khmer Times reported on Dec 6.

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Major Sok Kosal, a provincial military police officer, said the nine were loan sharks for a Chinese-owned casino in Sihanoukville. They were arrested after military police raided their rented home in Buon commune at about 1:30pm on Dec 5.

After the raid, police confiscated one pistol, four bullets, four pairs of handcuffs, two electric batons, eight phones, and other materials from the suspects.

A Chinese national was charged at the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court with murder after he stabbed a man to death, Phnom Penh Post reported on Dec 4.

Li Ruming, 24, works for a company in Cambodia, said Preah Sihanouk province deputy police chief, Kol Phally. He said that the victim was a restaurant worker named Wa Rong, also a Chinese national.

The attack occurred in commune 4, Sihanoukville, Preah Sihanouk province, with Li stabbing the victim multiple times in his head and body. Wa died of his injuries on the way to hospital.

Image of China ‘Affected’

As home to Cambodia’s only deep-water port – part of a vital trade route for the BRI, Sihanoukville has become a focal point for Chinese investment.

Vast Chinese-run construction projects are visible across almost every area of the city and its high streets are now lined with majority-Chinese businesses and restaurants.

For the locals, this ongoing transformation is divisive. Some are benefiting from an influx of money the city has never seen before, but many are being driven out by the skyrocketing cost of living.

The speed at which money is pouring in has also left local authorities in Sihanoukville with little time and resources to create regulation to manage either the dark underbelly of the Chinese casinos – sophisticated financial crime and money laundering – or the growing local discontentment.

A dozen hotel-condo projects aimed at Chinese tourists and second-home buyers are going up. Two other tax-free economic zones are being built. And, of course, more casinos are planned, none with BRI financing but all hoping to cash in on the investment flow, according to Bloomberg.

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“The image of China in Cambodia has been affected by what’s happened in Sihanoukville,” says Vannarith Chheang, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.

“I think the Chinese government and the Chinese embassy accepts there is rising anti-China rhetoric in Cambodia.”

Highlighting ongoing negotiations between the two governments in an effort to tackle crime and local ill feeling, he adds: “It is important for China to win the hearts of the Cambodian people. If China fails in Cambodia it will fail in the region.”

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