Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen R) toast in Phnom Penh in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Given the overall inscrutability of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speeches and writings on the governance of China, exactly what constitutes the “China model” is highly debatable.

But, all the same, Cambodians on Monday, July 30, possibly woke up to a version of it.

The results of Cambodia’s July 29 election have been widely reported – a “no-contest” landslide victory for the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), headed by Hun Sen, who has been prime minister since 1985 and whose party now claims it is set to hold all 125 parliamentary seats.

Cambodia is arguably the first nation in the region to carry out repression in the interests of one-party rule with the express support of a freshly ascendant People’s Republic of China, complete with aid and foreign direct investment (FDI), and with the promise of further windfalls from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China even “stepped in with US$20 million for election equipment – including polling booths, laptops and computers – after the US and European Union pulled funding for the vote,” Bloomberg reported.

Cambodia has also so far benefitted from China’s lending largesse, with the People’s Republic accounting for some 70% of Cambodia’s bilateral debt, according to a 2017 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report.

For China, a “stable” Cambodia under Hun Sen is preferable to any alternative because it can be increasingly counted on to support China regionally.

English-language, Chinese-government mouthpiece the Global Times stated as much in an editorial the day after the election.

“Hun Sen has refused to follow the US in its foreign policy and has never concealed his willingness to strengthen cooperation with China. He opposed ASEAN’s excessive involvement and external interference in the South China Sea issue. Naturally, the US wants to topple him through elections,” the editorial said.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen’s press for one-party rule, a ban on the chief opposition party, shutdowns of “unfriendly” local press outlets and repression of foreign NGOs – often disguised as tax audits – as well as the exile or imprisonment of opposition politicians are all straight out of the China governance playbook.

But there are other cadences that China-watchers will recognize. As Tej Parikh has pointed out in a commentary published by Reuters: “The CPP has directed funds to grandiose malls and real estate projects, which give the appearance of progress, but only benefit an elite few. 

“For many Cambodians, their country’s arbitrary law enforcement, weak bureaucracy and corrupt elites are the focus of growing concern,” the writer continues.

In other words, these are two growth stories that, at least superficially, mirror each other. But the differences are also significant and this is Hun Sen’s gamble.

China’s Xi has cultivated a genuine cult of personality based on publicly visible clean-up campaigns and a vision for China’s rejuvenation as a great nation – the China dream. Hun Sen has no such vision and he is far from worshipped with cult-like zeal.

In China, nobody has grown up with the promise of free and inclusive elections. But nearly two-thirds of Cambodia’s population is under 30, and the majority of the country’s eligible voters have grown up in the post-United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) era.

UNTAC was established in 1992 and ushered in general elections in 1993. Subsequent elections have not been without controversy, but they have been contested and have not been openly engineered to result in only one outcome.

But changing the game democratically is not Hun Sen’s only China gamble.

Cambodia’s trade with China is insignificant compared to its export reliance on the US and European markets, where it enjoys tariff exemptions that are now being reconsidered.

“Thanks to the tariff exemptions,” the Nikkei Asian Review has reported, “61.1% of Cambodia’s $10.1 billion in exports went to the EU and US in 2016 … China bought 6%.”

The garment sector, in particular, which accounts for 80% of Cambodia’s exports and is the strongest driver of the economy, is highly vulnerable to pushback from the West.

Amid increasing debate about the risks of China’s BRI and the dangers of debt accrued to “beneficiary” nations that cooperate with China in rolling it out, debate is equally heated about China’s model of governance itself.

In a 2015 Chinafile panel “conversation” on the subject, those in favor of the model evoked oxymorons such as “enlightened authoritarianism,” “authoritarian capitalism” and “authoritarian democracy,” all of which can be reduced to what they attempt to skirt around: authoritarianism.

The Chinese authoritarian system has evolved to where it is today amid scattered and occasional widespread opposition. Hun Sen has upturned the Cambodian system almost overnight, apparently based on the assumption that authoritarianism simply works.

The Global Times of China concludes it does, yielding “positive developments in China-Cambodia relations.” It concludes: “Western countries should mull over the reasons instead of being jealous.”

Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor has been reporting and commenting on Asian affairs from Taiwan, China and Thailand for more than 20 years, contributing to The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and the South China Morning Post, among other publications.