PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - While Western democracies largely condemned Cambodia’s one-sided elections on Sunday and broader crackdown on dissent ahead of the vote, China was effusive in its support of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s runaway victory.
In remarks delivered in a speech on Monday, Beijing’s ambassador to Cambodia, Wang Wentian, said "China strongly supports the Cambodian people in choosing their own development path that suits their national conditions." According to China’s Xinhua news agency, Wang also noted that a team of Chinese election observers monitored the race, which he said was "efficient, professional and peaceful." Wang also noted that turnout was nearly 85% and that 18 political parties participated in the ballot.
The ruling party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, declared a landslide victory in the July 23 national election, winning 120 of 125 seats in parliament. The royalist Funcinpec party was the only surprise of the day, winning the other five seats — up from zero in the previous National Assembly.
Just weeks before the election, the CPP-stacked National Election Committee barred the main opposition Candlelight Party from registering for the election, claiming it was missing necessary paperwork. The elections come amid a broader crackdown on dissent and any perceived threats to the ruling party, from human rights groups to the media.
The United States released a statement Sunday saying the elections were "neither free nor fair." It added that in the runup to the election, "Cambodian authorities engaged in a pattern of threats and harassment against the political opposition, media, and civil society that undermined the spirit of the country’s constitution and Cambodia’s international obligations."
Other countries — including Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and France — released statements of disappointment, but stopped short of deeming the elections not free and fair. Still, the Western response drew a stark contrast with the message from Chinese President Xi Jinping in a congratulatory letter to Hun Sen.
"The Communist Party of China is pleased to enhance the political leadership of bilateral relations with Prime Minister Hun Sen, deepen exchanges and cooperation between the parties and sectors, and work together to build a common destiny," he said. "Between China and Cambodia, the new era of high quality and high standards will provide greater benefits to the people and the two countries."
Analysts told VOA that China’s emphatic statements of support are likely welcomed amid increasing pressure from Cambodia’s longtime Western donors, however they said Phnom Penh runs the risk of overreliance on Beijing as it slides away from the democracy enshrined in its constitution.
Ear Sophal, associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, said the ruling party would only increase its reliance after the election, with countries like the U.S. threatening to withdraw development support.
But he doesn’t expect Cambodia’s government to change tack.
"Cambodia will weather the storm, always not caring one bit about the West. It practices a very strong reality distortion field. Good is bad, bad is good. No democracy and great foreign relations with China. They think they need only that," he said.
Vann Bunna, a researcher at the Khmer Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the post-election dynamics would make it even harder for Cambodia’s pro-democracy forces to reemerge.
"When Cambodia has very close and good relations with China but is very tense with the liberal countries, it makes the process of restoring democracy in Cambodia seem like there is very little hope … given the space for human rights, democracy, and civil society organizations is getting smaller," Bunna said.
Cambodia-China relations have become increasingly close over the last decade, and China has become the No. 1 foreign partner in terms of investment, bilateral trade, and tourism.
In January, a top official in the Ministry of Economy and Finance said China’s $1.6 billion in investment in 2022 was 42% of total foreign investment, with major stakes in agriculture, tourism, real estate and infrastructure.
China is also Cambodia’s top creditor, accounting for nearly 41% of its nearly $10 billion in foreign debt. And Beijing has given billions more in build-operate-transfer agreements through its Belt and Road initiative, meaning Chinese firms will collect revenue on major infrastructure projects for decades to come.
Prior to China’s booming investment over the past decade, much of Cambodia’s postwar development was funded by the Western democracies, along with Japan and South Korea. And Hun Sen had long paid lip service to demands for democratic reform, even tolerating a robust free press and civil society from the 1990s to the mid-2010s.
But that changed after the 2013 election, in which the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party came close to beating the CPP. The CNRP was outlawed, its leaders jailed or buried in legal cases, and various laws have been passed restricting democratic rights and other freedoms.
With the opposition largely immobilized, 70-year-old Hun Sen announced before the election that his son, 46-year-old Gen. Hun Manet, would succeed him soon after the election. And on Wednesday he said the power transfer would occur on Aug. 22.
Aun Chhengpor, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said given its democratic trajectory, China remained "the only country that can meet the needs of the Cambodian government."
But he said Hun Manet, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, would need to reestablish a geopolitical balance moving forward.
"I think he [Hun Manet] will be able to find a second way, a third way, to ensure that Cambodia is not in a situation that is overly dependent on one great power country," he said. He adds that it is unsustainable for any state to be completely dependent on one country.