The influx of Chinese nationals to Sihanoukville has been a hot topic in the Kingdom for the past few years, with many concerned over a reported spike in crime. But following the concern, both Cambodian and Chinese authorities set their sights on addressing the problem and security is returning to the province.
Sihanoukville, Preah Sihanouk province – Street vendor Chea Thy, who sells ice cream and cold drinks along Independence beach, has a smile on his face as he tries to attract customers.
But when asked about an influx of Chinese nationals into his city, his smile disappears.
“For people who have a house or land to rent to the Chinese, they are very happy, but for small businesses owners like me, I’m very concerned,” Mr Thy, 45, says. “Since Chinese people came here, our city has completely changed. Before we could rent a room for only $30 to $40 per month, but now it is $150 to $200.”
“Most of them are good, but some of them are very annoying; they do not respect the traffic light, they don’t wear the helmets, and sometimes when they are drunk, they walk along the streets yelling at and fighting each other,” he says. “I am very concerned about this ongoing situation.”
Chheang Sreang, a 38-year-old resident of the city, agrees with Mr Thy and notes that since the Chinese flooded the city, it has become less western and more like “China Town”.
“I think three years ago, there weren’t many Chinese people here, but now if you walk along the streets all you see is Chinese people,” he says. “Along the beaches, before there were western restaurants, but now most are Chinese.”
Sihanoukville has become an epicentre of Chinese investments in the past few years, with more than 50 Chinese-owned casinos and dozens of hotel complexes in the city, leading some critics to pen it the “second Macau”.
The Provincial Hall in February said that there are more than 70,000 Chinese, both businessmen and tourists, in the city, noting that they are having a positive influence on the economy.
Tourism Minister Thong Khon said in February that Cambodia expects to receive about three million Chinese tourists per year by 2020, five million by 2025 and eight million by 2030.
Safety concerns in the province prompted authorities to create specialised groups aimed at curbing crimes being committed by foreigners in Sihanoukville.
In August, the National Police formed an 11-member working group, drawn from senior officials from various departments to evaluate the security situation in the province. It reported that an increase in Chinese investments led to Chinese setting up criminal networks.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng also ordered the creation of a taskforce to provide additional support for provincial authorities to crack down on crimes.
Mr Kheng noted that crimes plaguing Preah Sihanouk include murder, drug trafficking, gambling, extortion and kidnapping.
Despite many being concerned over a reported spike in crime, which has been addressed by both the local police and Chinese authorities, not all residents stand against the influx of Chinese and the changes they are bringing to the city.Tea Sokhonn, a 38-year-old local businessman, says people need to stop exaggerating the negative impacts and embrace the change, which also has many positive points.
“I think we should not be concerned too much related to Chinese people; they are coming to improve our livelihoods,” Mr Sokhonn says. “The increasing number of Chinese here, it brings more jobs to Cambodian people. They own the casinos, factories, restaurants and other private companies, and I think most of our people get jobs from it.”
Major Yoeng Sokha, a provincial traffic police officer, says his officers have much more responsibilities due to the influx of Chinese.
While observing his subordinates directing traffic, he says that some Chinese respect the law, and some don’t, just like any other nationality.
“I have observed that about 20 percent of Chinese drivers do not respect the traffic law – like you see now, one motorbike driven by a Chinese man has stopped in the middle of the road and is causing a traffic jam,” he says.
Maj Sokha says it is difficult for his officers to deal with those that do not respect the traffic law because they do not speak Khmer and his officers do not speak Chinese.
“However, we are never careless to implement the law and our police officers are working 24 hours a day to ensure safety for people and tourists,” he adds.
The National Police reported last month that for the first three months of this year, there were 82 criminal cases involving foreign nationals that led to 341 arrests, including 241 Chinese nationals.
Sitting in his office, provincial police chief Major General Chuon Narin says his officers are working hard to address residents’ concerns.
“Over the past year, our province has received a big increase of vehicles, people and investment and it is having some negative impacts on our management, but it does not mean we lack ability to solve it,” he says. “I think we face some challenges and the question is how to solve those challenges; we are very patient and we are strengthening our laws.”
Maj Gen Narin says despite concerns over safety, the province is perfectly secure and residents have nothing to fear.He adds that currently Preah Sihanouk province has a population made up of 53 different nationalities, with Chinese and Indonesians making up the majority of foreign nationals.
“You should understand that Sihanoukville is a small city, but the number of vehicles and foreign population is increasing every day and it is becoming crowded,” he says. “Everyone knows our city is changing.”
“But I can say that our people are happy to live here.” he adds. “I can say the people here don’t care about people living outside the province saying bad things about our province; they just care about their businesses.”
Maj Gen Narin says the public must also help keep the province safe by reporting crimes.
“We are strict on weapons management; we won’t allow anyone to import weapons here,” he adds. “I appeal to all people to join with us; our police cannot fulfil this mission without cooperation from the people. Currently, we have secured the province due to the help of the people.”
Wang Tianxiang, deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Division of Southeast Asian Affairs, says the situation in Sihanoukville has been discussed amongst officials.
“We have talked about this; when a lot of Chinese people flood the country, there might be some problems,” he says during an interview in Beijing. “China and Cambodia have a close relationship, so that is why we have many businessmen and tourists coming to your country.”
Mr Tianxiang notes that Cambodians and Chinese authorities are cooperating to get the situation under control.
“We believe this problem will be resolved through good cooperation,” he says, noting both countries are working to “improve the environment” and the situation will be better in the near future.
“I believe with the effort of the Cambodian government and the Chinese side, the problem will be resolved,” he adds.