Some recent high-profile cultural gaffes haven't helped China's image in Cambodia. Last month, when revered former King Sihanouk died, a Chinese supervisor at a footwear factory in Phnom Penh destroyed two photos of the monarch when she discovered workers admiring them. The act made headlines and led to protests, and the supervisor was forced to bow in penance before a photo of the deceased king before she was fined and deported.
Incidents like these are straining the country's long, complex relationship with Chinese culture. Like most Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia has received generations of Chinese migrants over the centuries, in the process assimilating them and absorbing their culture. (Although it should be pointed out, of course, that negative stereotypes of overseas Chinese persist in the region, and that Chinese communities have faced brutal persecution from some of the 20th century's most notorious regimes, including the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese communists following reunification.)
Due to their shared heritage, ethnic Chinese find themselves in close contact with the new arrivals from China, to sometimes uncomfortable results. Yam Sokly, a heritage researcher at the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that this "PRC" culture, shorthand used by locals to distinguish it from traditional overseas Chinese culture, can come across as tone deaf and chauvinistic, in particular to ethnic Chinese like him. "We are very different from the PRC people," he said. "When they are disrespectful to local culture, it's not something we can accept."
It's difficult to know if China can overcome these image problems. On the one hand, there is a clear desire among Southeast Asians to ride the coattails of China's rise and reap the benefits, which requires familiarizing themselves with Chinese language and culture. But wariness about China's intentions only seems to grow. The Confucius Institutes, the vanguard of China's public diplomacy strategy, are designed to counter these suspicions. Every ASEAN nation except Vietnam has at least one of the institutes, and they coordinate a range of activities outside of the classroom, including exchanges of government officials and public events showcasing China's positive influence in regional countries.
In some corners, however, Confucius Institutes have merely aroused more suspicion. Michel Juneau-Katsuy, a retired Canadian intelligence official, has warned that the institutes could be fronts for espionage, both in a book he co-wrote called Nest of Spies and in an interview with Canada's National Post. State Department cables obtained and released by WikiLeaks do not share those concerns, characterizing the institutes simply as instruments of soft power. The State Department did cancel visas for 51 Chinese teachers at American Confucius Institutes earlier this year, citing technical reasons -- a decision it later reversed. And when the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing in March about the dangers of the institutes on American soil, several witness alleged espionage and propaganda. But the most salacious charges have yet to be proven, and the cables duly focus instead on budget shortfalls and bureaucracy, which hinder the institutes' effectiveness.
What is clear is that the institutes toe the party line. Critics have accused them of operating as fronts for Chinese propaganda on issues such as Taiwan and Tibet. Chea Munyrith, the director of Cambodia's institute, dismissed those concerns. "The government of Cambodia already supports the one-China policy," he said. "But we don't care about diplomacy or politics. We're here to teach language and culture." The institutes are part of what is supposed to be a new, open Chinese presence overseas -- one designed in part to counter what Beijing says is unfair criticism from the international media -- but in my attempts to contact the Chinese Embassy, I was hung up on repeatedly and my numerous emails went unanswered.
So while China has made great headway in its quest for Southeast Asia's affection, it still has a lot of work to do. On a recent afternoon, I rode a motorbike taxi out to Phnom Penh's upscale Toul Kork neighborhood, where the Xinzhi bookstore chain, one of China's largest, opened its first overseas branch in October of last year. As I poked around the store's aisles, which contain 30,000 copies of titles divided into categories ranging from Ancient Chinese Philosophy to Puppy Love Literature, I kept bumping into the store's eight on-duty sales clerks, who had little else to do but hover helpfully around me, their only customer. Later, in a windowless office upstairs, I asked Liu Minhui, the branch's general manager, how business was going. "It's true that we don't have many customers now," he said, smiling weakly. "But we're confident that they will come."