Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - Chinese influence is growing in Cambodia: the Asian giant, thirsty for energy and raw materials, and interested in extending its influence in the region, is stepping forward as the country's leading investor and trade partner. This influence is not limited to trade and industry, but extends to the social and cultural level, since the Chinese language has become an essential point of reference in the business world, surpassing even the monopoly held until now by English.
Relations between the two countries date back to the end of the 1950's, and were reinforced two decades later during the bloody regime of the Maoist dictator Pol Pot, actively supported by China, in spite of the genocide of the Khmer people, which caused the death of more than one million Cambodians in less than five years. Sources for the Chinese News Agency say that China is one of Cambodia's main trade partners, thanks to the 3,016 Chinese businesses operating in the territory, which produced 1.58 billion dollars at the end of 2007. Last year, bilateral trade grew by 30% compared to 2006, for a total volume of investments of 730 million dollars. This support is not limited to economic exchange, but is also reflected in the country's defence system: China is providing military assistance to Cambodia, strengthening its marine fleet with nine patrol boats in 2007, and five warships in 2005.
But there is another side to the Chinese presence: human rights and anti-corruption activists denounce an exponential growth in illegal logging, land-grabbing, and worker exploitation, and a dizzying increase in corruption levels. According to Simon Taylor, director of the international group Global Witness, "the effect of lots of money coming in with few strings attached, going to a lot of people in the government, is generally exacerbating corruption".
In the meantime, the Cambodian government has approved the construction of two hydroelectric power plants, to be built by Chinese companies. Work will begin by the end of 2008. The project is opposed by environmentalists, who denounce "serious damage to the country's ecosystem, and risks to the lives of thousands of people". The dams will be constructed in the province of Koh Kong, in the southwest of the country. The project will bring an investment of 540 million dollars from the China National Heavy Machinery Corp., and 495.7 million dollars from the Michelle Corp. It is expected to produce 338 megawatts of electricity.
Investments from Chinese companies are also prompting students in the country to study Mandarin over English (which nevertheless remains the most widespread foreign language), because it is becoming indispensable for business: it represents a fundamental resource for finding a better position in the professional arena, in the sectors of industry and tourism. The most important Chinese school in Cambodia is the Duan Hoa Chinese School in Phnom Penh, subdivided into two different sectors with more than 7,000 enrolled students; the second, the Chhung Cheng Chinese School, is fairly popular among Chinese-Khmer families, and numbers about 2,000 students. The government, finally, expects to add Chinese to the obligatory curriculum of its universities.