All this has helped Mandarin challenge English as the most popular second language in Cambodia and considerably expanded the footprint of Chinese culture. Zhou Liyun, head of the Chinese department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, has seen this growth firsthand. "Chinese is everywhere in Cambodia. If you don't speak Khmer or English, you can get by just fine with Mandarin," he said.
When Zhou, 27, left his native Yunnan Province for work in Cambodia five years ago, the move raised eyebrows among family members. "Fifteen years ago, if you spoke English, life was good. You stayed in China and got a job teaching or working with a company that did business with the West," he said. Now, with encouragement and funding from their government, young graduates like Zhou are flocking abroad to respond to skyrocketing demand from locals for Chinese language and cultural instruction, which helps them get jobs with the growing number of Chinese companies doing business in the region. China is Cambodia's largest source of foreign investment, at $1.9 billion in 2011, 10 times the amount of U.S. investment.
Zhou says that while his 1,300 students are eager to enhance their career prospects, they are also attracted to a culture that has become increasingly fashionable among the young. "If you have Chinese characters on your T-shirt or a Chinese pop song as your ringtone, it's seen as special," he said. He considers himself an unofficial cultural ambassador, someone who responded to the government's call to spread the word about the new China overseas. "We're making history here," he said.
While there is no regular polling that tracks public opinion of China in Southeast Asia, Cambodians I spoke with who had participated in Chinese cultural programs had positive things to say. Nou Maneth Athan, a morning news anchor on the state-run Cambodia Television Network, traveled to China in 2011 as part of a journalism training program (she insisted that state censorship was not in the lesson plan). Though she hadn't thought much about China before the trip, she came away impressed by its modern cities and wealth. "It's good for Cambodia to have a developed country like China by our side," she said.
Not everyone shares this sentiment. More than 400,000 Cambodians have been evicted from their land since 2003, many in connection with Chinese investment. In one of the most notorious examples, a Chinese company joined with a Cambodian firm to redevelop Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh, displacing 4,000 urban poor. In March, during a visit to Cambodia by Chinese President Hu Jintao, some of these evictees attempted to deliver letters of protest at the Chinese Embassy but were chased away by security. Similar anti-Chinese protests have taken place in Vietnam and Burma.
Ou Virak, a prominent Cambodian activist, said these cases have led to growing public awareness of China's role in human rights violations. However, the Cambodian government and state-controlled press present a relentlessly sunny picture of the relationship between the two countries, and many violations go unnoticed. As a result, "there is still a lot of good will towards China," he said. But the longer these violations go on, the more Cambodians will begin to question the relationship, something that no amount of cultural diplomacy can counter. "When it comes to human rights, these programs won't work. China has no defense. Human rights is not a principle they defend in their own country, so it's difficult for them to defend themselves here," he said.