On a blustery recent Saturday morning on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, as planes roared overhead on approach to the nearby international airport, three dozen people sat in a tiny classroom at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. Crammed shoulder to shoulder, they watched raptly as a flat-panel TV showed a pair of Chinese pop stars crooning a love song in Mandarin.
Chea Munyrith, head of the academy's Confucius Institute, one of more than 350 such Chinese government-funded outposts of language and culture around the world, pointed out prominent students in the class. "There, we have a high-ranking member of the military," he said, gesturing toward a man wearing a black tunic and gold-rimmed glasses, standard garb for Cambodia's ruling elite. "We also have a secretary of state of the Council of Ministers," he added, the equivalent of Cambodia's cabinet.
When the video finished, a teacher in her early 20s from China named Zhu Hong walked to the front of the room and led the group in a booming recitation of the song's saccharine lyrics. Chea nodded with satisfaction. Earlier, he had told me, "The relationship between China and Cambodia is growing stronger, and more and more Cambodians want to learn Mandarin." He added, "They are turning away from American culture to Chinese culture."
After investing tens of billions of dollars in Southeast Asia, China has now decided that its vaunted economic power, which has bought it significant influence with regional governments, is not enough. Beijing now wants to be loved, too. In this brave new world of Chinese diplomacy, language and culture -- and, yes, pop songs -- are playing a major role in Beijing's quest to be understood and, if all goes well, win the affection of Southeast Asia's 600 million people. It's is uncharted territory for a government that until recently appeared to care very little about how it was perceived outside of China. "The Chinese government is paying much more attention to public diplomacy than before," said Yang Baoyun, a Southeast Asia expert at Peking University in Beijing. "The government has realized that people are important, and that cultural exchange can supplement traditional diplomacy."
On Nov. 18-20, Cambodia will host Barack Obama, Wen Jiabao, and other world leaders at the ASEAN Summit. As the United States pivots from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and re-engages with the 10 countries of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, much of the focus at the summit will be on Washington's ability to revive its flagging diplomatic influence. But in the contest for public opinion, which the United States is accustomed to leading without challenge, the landscape is shifting. The Chinese government, with the help of large companies and thousands of young language teachers willing to relocate overseas, has launched an ambitious cultural diplomacy effort designed to clean up its image, which has been soiled by a number of high-profile scandals in the region, including investment projects that have resulted in land grabbing and environmental damage. To counter these negative perceptions, Beijing has overseen an explosion of language schools, exchange programs, bookstores, and cultural corners. The effort began in earnest in 2004 when Hanban, an organization that falls under the Ministry of Education, began establishing Confucius Institutes at universities around the world. There are now 353 of them in 104 countries, part of what Hu Jintao described in a 2007 speech as China's effort to "enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country." Hanban plans to open 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020.
Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN and a key backer of China in its disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other bloc members over resource-rich islands in the South China Sea, is a microcosm for China's cultural ambitions. Phnom Penh's Confucius Institute, which coordinates closely with the Chinese Embassy, has 31 teachers from China and 1,000 students. In addition, Beijing has provided nearly 500 scholarships for Cambodians to study at universities in China, and it has sent numerous government officials, academics, and journalists on exchange visits to Chinese cities. One of the largest bookstore chains in China recently opened its first overseas outlet in Phnom Penh, and the country is home to 57 Chinese-language schools with more than 40,000 students, although many of these do not receive support from Beijing.
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.
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."