Cambodia recently became the first country in Southeast Asia to begin building the fifth-generation (5G) internet network developed by the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies.
Cambodia's early adoption of Huawei’s 5G network fits with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s tightening the political and economic relationship with Beijing, which has prompted a surge of Chinese investment across a range of sectors.
5G Internet speed is as much as 100 times faster than 4G and will be central to a future world of smart cities filled with smart homes and offices replete with devices connected to the “internet of things”.
Following an agreement between his government and Huawei inked during his visit to Beijing in April, Hun Sen welcomed the 5G network as a major step for Cambodia’s economic and technological development.
Media freedom and human rights activists warn, however, that Cambodia’s introduction of Huawei’s 5G network could further expand the ruling party’s surveillance of public dissent and restriction of online content.
“I think it’s more of the same,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said of the 5G rollout by Huawei, which has been accused of helping the Chinese Communist Party police the internet in China.
“Cambodian mobile phones and the network, I think, are highly compromised by the Cambodian government and people who are using that kind of communications networks to criticize the government is facing the potential of surveillance, spying, and retaliation.”
Cambodia’s early adoption of Huawei’s 5G network comes amid an intensifying Sino-American trade war and fierce competition over which company will build most of the strategically important 5G networks across the globe.
Huawei is in a leading position to do so, ahead of Nordic companies Nokia and Ericsson, but the United States cautioned allies and partner countries against using Huawei’s 5G network, claiming that the company spies for the Chinese government. Huawei has denied the claim.
Cambodia’s relationship with the U.S. has deteriorated since the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) turned toward China and claimed victory in the 2018 elections, which were seen by observers as neither free nor fair.
Moa Chakrya, who heads the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia, told VOA Khmer last month that he was unconcerned about Chinese influence on the communications infrastructure.
He added, nonetheless, that 5G arrived “too soon” as around 50 percent of Cambodia’s current network is 4G and the country lags behind in infrastructure and devices that can connect to the “internet of things.”
Last month, telecom firm Smart Axiata, which serves about half of Cambodia’s 16 million inhabitants, held 5G trials and said it planned to roll out Huawei’s mobile network this year.
'Very High Risks'
Sarah Repucci, a senior director for research and analysis at the NGO Freedom House, told a media and democracy forum in Washington D.C. in May that Huawei’s links with the Chinese government make the rapid spread of its 5G technology around the globe potentially worrisome for both governments and citizens of other countries.
“China is attempting to set the technical standard for how the internet will be coded and transmitted in the process of building this infrastructure,” she said.
“And there are very high risks that China will be able to use this infrastructure for its own surveillance and also pass on this technology to its local allies in those countries to use those infrastructures as surveillance on their own populations.”
Daniel Bastard, Reporters Without Border’s Asia Pacific desk director, said he could not predict if the introduction of Huawei’s 5G technology would affect freedom of speech in Cambodia, though he added that it aids China’s efforts to spread its model of information control to other countries.
“We can see this kind of pattern and really growing patterns of the Chinese model in Cambodia, which is very bad for free speech and freedom of information,” he told VOA Khmer by phone.
China’s influence over media abroad
It specifically highlighted the alleged threat posed by China’s expanding influence over media abroad through investment in the telecom and media sectors of other countries.
“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has developed the world’s most multilayered, dynamic, and sophisticated apparatus of media control at home,” the report said.
“Chinese authorities influence news media content around the world through three primary strategies: promoting the CCP’s narratives, suppressing critical viewpoints, and managing content delivery systems,” Freedom House said.
In the past year, while Cambodia’s free press withered following a government crackdown, its media sector saw a simultaneous influx of Chinese investors.
They set up new local-language media outlets, such as NICE TV and Tnaot News, which avoid critical coverage of political issues, while some also invested in existing news organizations linked to the ruling CPP.