China haunted by Khmer Rouge links
By Antoaneta Bezlova
BEIJING - The skeletons are tumbling out of China's cupboard of buried
memories. The 30th anniversary of China's brief but bloody war with Vietnam may
have gone unmarked but for the fact that February 17 also saw the start of the
trial of the chief torturer of Cambodia's grisly Khmer Rouge.
China's role in Cambodia's bloody past is now little spoken of and this is how
Beijing, Hanoi and Phnom Penh - all intent on trade and development - prefer
When in 1979 Vietnam ousted Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, Beijing was so
incensed by what it saw as defiance in its backyard by a political party it had
helped create that it ordered
an attack to "teach Vietnam a lesson" and keep Pol Pot in power.
During his 1975-1979 rule Pol Pot sought to replicate Mao Zedong's agrarian
utopia, but the experiment left Cambodia deeply scarred and a quarter of its
population - some 1.7 million people - dead.
Although aware of the atrocities committed by the regime, Beijing sided with
the Khmer Rouge over the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and launched a massive
offensive against Vietnam along the two countries' border.
The month-long border conflict claimed anywhere between 20,000 to 60,000 lives,
and yet no commemorations were held on the 30th anniversary either in Beijing
As the trial of Khmer Rouge's chief investigator Kaing Guek Eav, also known as
Duch, opened in Phnom Penh, China sought to downplay its role in supporting Pol
"As everyone knows, the government of Democratic Kampuchea had a legal seat at
the United Nations, and had established broad foreign relations with more than
70 countries," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular press
briefing, referring to the former Khmer Rouge government.
Duch is being tried on charges of crimes against humanity. Under his watch, as
commandant of the notorious S-21 prison, some 14,000 people were tortured and
sent to their deaths in the killing fields outside the capital Phnom Penh.
(Please see Trial
and error in Cambodia, February 18, 2009.)
"China owes Cambodian people an apology," said Lao Mong Hay, former director of
the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh and now a senior researcher at
the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. "It supported the Khmer Rouge
before coming to power and continued to lend its support even after Pol Pot
assumed power regardless of what was happening to Cambodian people."
According to Mong Hay, China had donated $1 billion to Democratic Kampuchea
before 1979 and another billion dollars after 1979 in order to fight the
China often admonishes Japan to "face up" to history, insisting that Tokyo's
unapologetic attitude regarding its invasionist politics of the past impedes
relations with its neighbors. But when applied to China's own past, reckoning
of history's fallacies is discarded as irrelevant to current and future
"China and Vietnam have had a period of unhappiness in their past,'' Jiang Yu
told reporters. "But what's important is that the leaders and people of both
countries have a broad wish and consensus to create a bright future together.
History has already reached its conclusions," she added.
The Khmer Rouge was a replica of the Maoist regime, said Mong Hay, and any
probe into its record could throw unfavorable light on China's own historical
blunders. "The Chinese communist regime hasn't accounted yet for the sufferings
caused to its own people during years of political campaigns and persecutions,"
During Mao's rule China armed and trained rebel groups in almost every
Southeast Asian country, including Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and
Cambodia, even as it fostered warm relations with their official governments.
Beijing's generous support for revolutionary armies all over Asia rose during
the Cultural Revolution when China's rivalry with the Soviet Union intensified
and they competed for influence in the region as Western colonial powers
"In the end it was realpolitik, far more than ideological affinity, which
brought China and Cambodia together," wrote Philip Short in his biography of
Pol Pot, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare. "There was near-perfect
symmetry to the three countries' relations. China was to Vietnam as Vietnam was
to Cambodia - a vast and powerful neighbor, which threatened hegemony."
While Beijing saw Vietnam as a Soviet bridgehead in Asia, it also saw "Cambodia
as the one country on Vietnam's western flank which might be expected to resist
the expansion of Vietnamese, and hence of Soviet power," Short wrote.
Now, as then, imperatives of ideology have given way to realpolitik. Economy
and trade form the basis for Beijing's policies towards its neighboring
countries these days. China is patiently rebuilding traditional ties with all
of its Southeast Asian neighbors, using foreign investment, development aid and
"soft power" to draw them back into its economic orbit.
The Greater Mekong Subregion intra-regional trade program, launched by the Asia
Development Bank in 1992, has provided Beijing with the framework for expanding
economic ties without arousing fears among its neighbors still wary of Chinese
"China actively participates in the development of the GMS because it sees it
as the building of a passage to all of Southeast Asia," said He Shengda,
researcher with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
In Cambodia these days, Chinese firms are engaged in mining and logging, and
have built roads, bridges, garment factories, power plants, casinos and
resorts, investing about $1.5 billion in 2007.
A Cambodian investment group and a Chinese textile firm have committed three
billion dollars to a joint venture, in Sihanoukville, modelled along the lines
of China's tax-free special economic zones.
In Vietnam, the old theatres of war are now bustling with Chinese traders,
facilitated by new highways, such as the one linking Nanning in Guangxi
province with Hanoi. Within three years, another ADB-financed highway will
shorten the drive between Yunnan capital Kunming and Hanoi to less than 24
Similar accelerated economic integration can be seen elsewhere in Southeast
Asia where Chinese companies are providing capital and expertise in exchange
for markets and valuable resources.
"The economies of the GMS and China are highly complementary," said Zhang
Guotu, an expert on Southeast Asia with Xiamen University. "The sub-region has
great potential in terms of resources and labor but its economies are lagging
behind. This presents opportunities for Chinese state and private companies
looking both for markets and investment."
Within the greater scope of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN),
China is also pushing for enlarged economic interdependence. In a sign of its
growing ambitions, last year Beijing appointed a special ambassador to the
In 2010, China and ASEAN are due to launch the first stage of a trade
agreement, reducing tariffs on trade between China and the five founding
countries of the bloc - Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and
Thailand. In 2015, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma will also join the trade
bloc. The exception is Brunei.
Nevertheless, China's relations with Southeast Asian nations remain prickly as
history and politics often get in the way of economic integration.
"History should not be easily discarded," said Mong Hay. "It only takes a look
at Cambodia and China relations, for example, to see that they have been like a
yo-yo in the past - swinging from good to bad and back."