For once I find myself in complete agreement with a Chinese government official:
“I think the behaviour the lady took is very stupid, and we are also very angry about this.”
This was the response of Yang Tianyue, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, to the news that a Chinese factory manager in the Cambodian capital had destroyed two photographs of the country’s beloved former monarch Norodom Sihanouk in front of hundreds of workers.
The workers at the Top World garment factory had been gathering to look at one worker’s photographs of the former King on Monday morning when an operations manager at the plant, who apparently thought they were slacking off work, reportedly ripped the photographs away and cut them up with a pair of scissors.
The response of the thousand-strong workforce was to immediately go on strike and march to the Royal Palace before the police intervened and took the culprit into custody. The next day she appeared before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and was sentenced to a one year suspended jail term. She will reportedly face deportation once her US$1,250 fines have been paid.
To publicly deface the image of Norodom Sihanouk at any time would an appalling act in Cambodia but to do it during a period of public mourning after the king died on 15 October borders on the insane. As such, the swift and unequivocal response of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, and later the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, was absolutely necessary. Any hesitation or equivocation by the Chinese authorities could have had serious consequences for the rapidly growing Chinese business community in Phnom Penh.
In 2003, a rumour that a Thai soap opera star had claimed Cambodia’s most iconic temple Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand and should be returned sparked a whole day of rioting in the city, during which the Thai Embassy was set alight and numerous Thai businesses were attacked.
At present, the concerted efforts of the Chinese and Cambodian authorities to portray the defacement of the former King’s image as an isolated incident seems to have paid off. In the long-term however tensions between Chinese business owners and Cambodian factory workers are unlikely to diminish.
The focus on the defacement of the royal image has distracted attention from the fact that for a manager to publicly destroy any property of employees (especially what could have been family photographs) is an outrageous act. Unfortunately however this is the kind of behaviour Chinese factory bosses think they can get away with because they got away with it for so long in China until workers there increasingly stood up against such disrespectful actions.
Six months ago, in discussing the massive influx of Chinese businesses into Cambodia, I wrote that “there is a real danger that Chinese businesses will simply try to replicate the exploitative model of labour relations that Chinese workers are now beginning to reject at home.” Sadly it seems that process has already begun.