How the Cambodian Dream Fails Chinese Workers

By Alysha Chandra

It’s a familiar refrain throughout South East Asia–China is taking over. From Singapore to Sihanoukville, locals are growing increasingly irate at the impact Chinese investment has on their daily lives. Besides cultural clashes between locals and new Chinese immigrants, Chinese businesses and investments around the globe are widely reported to adversely affect local markets and the environment.

As China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continues to chug along, these problems will continue to grow, ushering in a wave of anti-China resentment. In Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodia, however, the Chinese workers entering the country in droves seem to be at the losing end of the bargain.

“I thought Cambodia was going to be very different before I came here,” said Mr. Liu, a Chinese citizen who works in the interior design industry in Sihanoukville, which local officials hope will become Cambodia’s Shenzhen. Mr. Liu does not share their optimism. He still recalls the first time he drove into the coastal province, once a haven for Western backpackers.

Mr. Liu initially imagined that Sihanoukville looked like how it did under the Khmer Rouge regime, when development in the Kingdom was stalled by the devastation caused by genocide. Instead, the province has been developing at breakneck speed in the past few years, far outpacing the growth of its infrastructure. The crowded one-lane dirt road that links the province to Phnom Penh is crowded with heavy construction vehicles and plagued by hours-long traffic jams. A $2 billion expressway, reportedly a “key project under BRI cooperation”, funded by state-owned Chinese banks and built by a state-owned Chinese company, is slated to be completed by 2023.

Traffic jams are just one of the many issues the injection of Chinese capital into Sihanoukville has caused. According to government officials, the province’s sewage system was built during the French colonial period and cannot handle the increase in volume. According to environmental advocacy groups like Mother Earth Cambodia, hotels and casinos by the seaside release their waste directly into the ocean.

Business has taken a hit from domestic tourists, who are deterred by increasing room costs. According to Mr. H.E. Taing Socheatkrisna, director of the tourism department for Sihanoukville province, a room that would have cost $20USD a night a few years ago would now fetch $50USD. Local business owners and residents are also being priced out by increasing rents. Western tourists, once a common sight on Sihanoukville beaches, are deterred by backpacker guides that advise against swimming in the sewage-filled waters and caution them against the ‘violence, rape, theft and muggings’ prevalent in the region.

Instead of Shenzhen, Mr. Liu draws a parallel between Sihanoukville and another Chinese city: Macau. Unlike Macau, which has 41 casinos, Sihanoukville contains over a 100 casinos and counting. “The gambling and sex industries in Sihanoukville attract a lot of crime,” Mr. Liu says.

In May 2019, a video of a group of young shirtless Chinese men cheering and threatening to take control of the capital of Sihanoukville province went viral, sparking an outcry on social media.

In a remarkable move, Thong Mardy, a commune police chief, told the usually pro-government Phnom Penh Post, saying “The Chinese nationals who come here were mostly criminals in China who have poor track records… were we to implement our country’s legal measures, there’d be no pardons for them.” Still, Mr. Liu says, many of these wanted fugitives bribe local officials to produce fake identities for them, allowing them to start anew.

Authorities have responded to some of these complaints. Local authorities shut down a Chinese-owned casino on an island off Sihanoukville in May 2019 for releasing untreated sewage water into the ocean. Speaking to Radio Free Asia, Cambodian environmental activist Thun Ratha expressed his worry that this gesture was only a temporary measure intended to cool down public outcry and that the casinos would reopen within months.

The police has also set up a taskforce to deal with the increased crime rate in Sihanoukville caused by “foreign nationals”. Despite local’s anxiety surrounding the increased crime rate, Mr. Socheatkrisna said that these crimes mainly affect other Chinese people. According to Mr. Choun Panha, a Cambodian worker at a Chinese-owned power plant, his company has even implemented a 6pm curfew for their Chinese workers to prevent them from gambling and to keep them safe from Chinese criminals in the area.

While China’s Belt and Road initiative is often described by Western observers as a vast and intricate strategy, the initiative follows in the tradition of the domestic “policy campaign”, in which the central authority issues broad directives that bureaucrats, businesspeople and regular citizens rush en masse to fulfil.

Without a ministry to plan or administer BRI activities, the Chinese government still has not defined which projects qualify as BRI initiatives. Projects like the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ), an industrial park employing over 20,000 workers, are branded as collaborations between both nations but are in fact endeavours by private investors.

Mr Liu’s project in Sihanoukville will end in a month, but he plans to return. Smiling, he shares his idea for a business venture: an online casino.

Alysha Chandra is a junior at Yale-NUS College. You can contact her at