While the Chinese were possibly the country’s largest minority prior to the Khmer Rouge period, their numbers had dwindled to around only 60,000 by 1984. The Chinese presence in Cambodia has increased drastically since 1993, though their exact numbers remain difficult to ascertain; research suggests that there are at least 300,000 ethnic Chinese, though some estimates put the population as high as 700,000.
The largest Chinese ethnic groups appear to remain the Teochiu, Cantonese, Hainan and Hakka. Though traditionally the Chinese in Cambodia tended to intermarry with the Khmer, they had also tended to maintain strong associations with their Chinese identity, and this appears to continue today as new Chinese-medium schools have reappeared and are taking on large numbers of pupils.
Prior to 1974, the Chinese were often concentrated in urban centres. Though these communities were decimated during the Khmer Rouge period, many Chinese are now re-established in these centres. However, it appears that the Chinese community is more dispersed than it was before.
The Chinese presence in Cambodia goes back a number of centuries; in terms of settled communities, different southern Chinese ethnic groups arrived in the country at slightly different times. It is thought that the first distinct Chinese communities were probably established after the fall of the Song dynasty in the thirteenth century. What is clear, however, is that among the first ethnic Chinese to settle in Cambodia were the Hokkiens, while the Cantonese and Hainanese seem to have arrived towards the end of the seventeenth century, followed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the Teochiu and Hakka. At the time of the French Protectorate, the largest Chinese groups were the Hokkiens and Cantonese, though by the mid-twentieth century they would be outnumbered by the Teochius.
These Chinese communities had extensive autonomy during the French protectorate period. In effect, each distinct Chinese linguistic group had its own chef de congregation, and these chiefs were recognized by French authorities as having power over matters of immigration and emigration, movement between towns, schools, temples, cultural societies. In other words, they were not treated as colonial subjects; each of the Chinese minorities had the right to control its own internal affairs to a quite extensive degree. This also meant that the French did not assume any responsibility for the Chinese in matters such as health and education.
This was to be a high point in terms of the rights of the Chinese minorities. Cambodian independence in 1953 saw a regression in their treatment by state authorities and the previously existing autonomy was eliminated by the new government. However, many private associations – cultural, business-oriented and to do with education – were simply continued by the Chinese communities and clan associations themselves, as these communities still had very significant economic and political power. Anti-Chinese feelings and policies emerged, however, after the coup of 1970 which saw the establishing of a pro-West government which considered the neighbouring People’s Republic of China a dangerous threat – and the Chinese minorities in Cambodia as a possible fifth column.
The year 1970 thus marks the beginning of almost two decades of severe repression of the Chinese minorities in Cambodia. It was after this point that Cambodian authorities started forcing the closure of Chinese schools and newspapers, requiring the Chinese to carry special identity papers, imposing special taxes on the Chinese and moving towards denying them Cambodian citizenship. While the Khmer Rouge regime appeared to have a more ‘tolerant’ ethnic policy initially, it continued to discriminate against the Chinese once it had completed its takeover of Cambodia. The continued discrimination, however, now rested on class rather than ethnic grounds; since the majority of urban Chinese were traders, they were classified as ‘capitalists’ by the revolutionary regime. While there is no evidence that the Chinese were particularly targeted in the Khmer Rouge purges, their population in Cambodia was probably reduced by half in the four years of Khmer Rouge rule; it seems that there was an increased number of anti-Chinese incidents just prior to the Vietnamese invasion which brought an end to the Pol Pot regime.
The establishment of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 was not completely positive for the Chinese minorities. Partly because of tensions between China and Vietnam, the new Cambodian authorities adopted restrictive measures against the remaining members of the Chinese minorities, including banning them from returning to urban trades. This continued until the Vietnamese army left in 1989.
As Cambodia began moving towards a democratic state, the more obvious forms of discrimination against the Chinese began to be removed or tempered. After 1990, they were allowed to celebrate Chinese festivals and religious practices, then to re-establish Chinese associations and conduct business activities. They subsequently started operating their own schools, which expanded considerably in recent years in Phnom Penh and other centres. A number of Chinese-language newspapers began to be published in the country after 1993, and state television broadcasting even included a news segment in Chinese after 1998.
The position of the Chinese minority has undergone a dramatic turn for the better and the Chinese seem to have regained much of their previous economic clout. For various reasons, including the growing economic collaboration between China and Cambodia and the huge investments being made by Chinese companies, the Chinese community has seen its numbers expand dramatically in recent years. There has been a huge growth in Chinese-language schools, often generously supported by the government of China through subsidies, and also in the production of textbooks (in Chinese) that incorporate Cambodian history and seminars for teachers.
All of the main political parties in Cambodia now appear sensitive to the clout of the Chinese minority, publishing campaign material in Chinese in the last elections. While this minority faced serious discrimination until the 1980s, it appears that that period has come to an end and that they no longer appear to be victimized by state authorities and are allowed to prosper under Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in