Chinese Shadows

In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, the economy is going strong, but the prime minister, Hun Sen, has organized the plunder of the nation’s resources for the benefit of its powerful neighbor, China—in exchange for Beijing’s protection.

Xu Pucheng, age fifty-nine, is a humble Chinese peasant from Hubei Province, a mild-mannered man and a peaceful traveler. Every year, when winter comes and his small, one-seventh-acre plot in China no longer requires his attention, he packs his bag and heads south on foot, toward Laos, Burma, and Cambodia, some 1,500 miles away. Just now he is in Phnom Penh. On the sidewalk near the Olympic stadium he displays his wares: balloons in a variety of colors. He has 30,000 of them stuffed into his bag. He is pleased to have earned $175 in the past month. Cambodge Soir, the last French daily paper in Cambodia, which has just shut its doors, devoted an entire page to him, entitled “The Balloon Merchant Who Walked Here from His Native China.” The publicity is deserved: Pucheng lives simply and sleeps on a rented cot in a campground or park. He washes in a stream or fountain. He survives on a few bowls of noodles a day. He makes his way across Asia on foot to bring pleasure to children. To my eye he stands for those supreme qualities of the Chinese, curiosity about others and courage.

I tell this story in order to underscore the point that not everyone is corrupt in this Khmer kingdom, which boasts some 343 ministers, 849 generals, 30,000 officers, and 50,000 NCOs (for 15,000 soldiers). The regime is constitutional but lawless. The only figure who inspires trust is the new king, Sihamoni, who is a son of the former king, Norodom Sihanouk. Sihamoni is right when he says that someday the 15 million Cambodians will tire of being swindled and robbed by their “elites.” They will need an unblemished figure to represent them, and so Sihamoni suggests that he will save his country from despair.

For now, however, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his entourage have plunged Cambodia into a kind of hell. The country has become a regime of organized pillage, a vast bazaar of plundered goods, a regional center for shady business of every kind: drugs, gambling, sex. The head of the national police, one of Hun Sen’s three closest associates, owns the largest brothel in the country. Many officials enrich themselves at the peasants’ expense.

In Phnom Penh this is all but invisible, because the economy is doing relatively well. With increasing global demand for cheap clothing and the revenues from tourism, Cambodia has had unprecedented economic growth in 2007. Textile factories are creating hundreds of thousands of jobs: their owners in Taiwan and Hong Kong anticipated the European Union’s 2005 decision to impose quotas on clothing made in China. By establishing factories in Phnom Penh, they are able to export clothing that is labeled “Made in Cambodia.” Despite the boom, however, one third…

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