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 of the population lives well below the poverty line, on less than fifty cents a day. Unlike Vietnam, where the flow of corrupt cash filters down to the lower strata of society, in Cambodia the ruling elite—some of them former members of the Khmer Rouge—build luxurious palaces for themselves while turning their backs on the peasants who make up three quarters of the population.

Cambodia’s corruption began nearly forty years ago. The story begins with the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s, and in great secrecy, the Americans began heavy bombing of eastern Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge forces were recruited under this deluge of bombs. They were backed by North Vietnamese troops, who were transporting arms from North to South Vietnam by way of Cambodia. The US escalation in Vietnam continued into the early 1970s. In 1970, Washington installed General Lon Nol in power in Phnom Penh, driving King Sihanouk into exile in Beijing. It was at this time that the plunder of the country began, amid the chaos of an undeclared civil war and just prior to the advent of a murderous utopia under the Khmer Rouge. Between April 1975 and December 1978, an army of illiterate, indoctrinated children led by depraved intellectuals trained at the Sorbonne caused the deaths of over a million inhabitants of Cambodia’s cities; about a fifth of the country’s population at that time died.

Cambodia was on its last legs when the Vietnamese invaded in December 1978, and they installed the new government dominated by Hun Sen, who became prime minister in 1985. A consummate survivor, he is still prime minister twenty-two years later. He did everything he could to prevent the public trial of Khmer Rouge leaders demanded by the United Nations. Why? Because although he had been placed in power by the Vietnamese, he had long since transferred his allegiance to the Chinese government, which had been the chief patron of the Khmer Rouge regime, supplying it with arms, food, training, and international backing. To put the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial would have been to denounce Chinese collaboration in the Khmer genocide.1 It would also have compromised certain tangible interests. “China is a very great country,” Hun Sen declared recently.


If 1.3 billion Chinese were all to urinate at the same time, it would unleash a major flood. But China’s leaders are doing good things with their partners…. When China gives, there are no strings attached. You can do what you want with the money.

The Cambodian leaders did not fail to take advantage of the opportunity. State assets were sold off to the highest bidder. One scholar, François Mangin, has estimated that

between 1993 and 1999, the Cambodian government sold concessions to more than a third of Cambodia’s most productive land, mainly to foreign companies engaged in commercial exploitation of forests, mineral resources, agriculture, fisheries, and tourism.2

To cite just one example: Pheapimex and Wuzishan, two companies run by the best friend of Hun Sen’s wife, were given rights to develop and exploit more than 1.26 million acres of forest with logistical support from Chinese firms.

The proceeds from land confiscation—which primarily involves the pillage of Cambodian forests for Chinese exploitation—have been used to finance the prime minister’s party and his security force, which is the only well-equipped military unit in the country (other brigades are employed in the transport of timber). Money acquired dishonestly is laundered in nine casinos now operating in Poipet, a town near the Thai border. Western governments and international aid organizations, including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, are well aware of this phenomenal corruption.

In March 2006, international donors attached numerous conditions, including the passage by the end of the year of anticorruption laws, to a vast package of aid to Cambodia amounting to some $600 million. Nothing came of this initiative, however, because one month later, in April, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao landed in Phnom Penh. To the astonishment of other donors, he offered Hun Sen another $600 million, but without any conditions. With typical Chinese flair for the spectacular, this gift was a way of showing that Cambodia was now among the countries under Beijing’s “protection.”3

The Chinese initiative was hardly surprising. China wants an opening to the Gulf of Thailand. The port of Sihanoukville will allow Chinese freighters to avoid waters that are kept under close surveillance by the United States. And the American oil company Chevron has discovered oil in Cambodian waters. The big Chinese oil companies want their share. This is understandable. The Chinese are builders and merchants. They want to fill Cambodia with highways, bridges, railroads, and other infrastructure that will help them ship their merchandise abroad. They also believe that Western aid is inefficient, because half of it goes to pay the salaries of foreign “experts” who are brought in to supervise aid projects. They would rather build the infrastructure themselves, at a cost and on a timetable that no one else can match. There’s nothing to criticize about this.

What seems to me more singular about Beijing’s attitude toward Cambodia, however, is that Chinese officials have shown themselves unable to support “good” practices rather than “bad” ones. Hun Sen and his collaborators have long held Cambodia in their grip, and that has suited the Chinese Communists just fine. Beijing has also backed the despicable military government in Burma and the paranoid North Korean dictator. Whatever mad regime might serve China’s interests, regardless of the suffering inflicted on the victims of those regimes, has been accepted, tolerated, and supported by the Chinese. Western diplomats have taken much satisfaction in denouncing their “cynicism.”

But is it really cynicism? It is in the name of pragmatism that the Chinese do not allow moral considerations to weigh on their minds. Without any qualms, they adapt instantly to whatever situation they find, good and bad. This absolute pragmatism is the rule in the private sphere as well as for public affairs. I am reminded of what a Chinese friend told me when I expressed my exasperation at this failure to distinguish between good and evil. She answered: “My father told me, ‘Be good, but not too good, or else you will die, for your place will be in Heaven, not on earth. And don’t be too bad, either, or you won’t deserve your place on earth.” Had the balloon seller said the same thing, it might have mitigated my rage against Hun Sen’s clique.

—Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer

This Issue

October 11, 2007