As early as April 1975 a special National Congress outlined the principles of Democratic Kampuchea’s foreign policy; the new authorities in Phnom Penh made it clear that they would not be a compliant understudy to any foreign patron:

The long-standing strategic position of our Cambodia is to firmly pursue the policy of independence, peace, neutrality, and nonalignment. Our people absolutely will not allow any country to establish military bases in Cambodia and are firmly and irrevocably opposed to all forms of foreign interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs from outside, whether military, political, economic, cultural, social or diplomatic.

 Admittedly although Phnom Penh’s sole functioning air link was to Beijing, and Hanoi for a short period of time, the frequent depiction of Democratic Kampuchea as a hermetically sealed hermit state belies the state to state relations, continuing engagement in the Non-Aligned Movement and diplomatic and trading relations that existed, let alone the issues surrounding the border disputes that involved the fledgling state.

Throughout 1975, formal diplomatic relations were limited to China and North Korea, Democratic Kampuchea’s only international allies for years to come, as well as DK’s immediate neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, there was attention given to the “forging of international contacts” with significant political activity of the new regime in 1975 [i]

By the end of 1977, DK had diplomatic relations with around 100 states, mostly non-aligned countries, however the diplomatic missions active in the Cambodian capital remained restricted to China, North Korea, Vietnam (until December 1977), Laos, Cuba, Albania, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Egypt with little, if any, freedom of movement for the diplomatic corps.

In Ieng Sary’s speeches before the tiny diplomatic corps in Phnom Penh during the 1977 New Year’s reception he described, “the revolution of Kampuchea as a modest contribution to the common cause of the revolution in the world and to the struggle of all peace- and justice-loving peoples, especially to the struggle of the peoples of the non-aligned countries and the Third World[ii]

* *   *   *

Sino-Cambodian relations today

In 2010 the Chinese ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia, Zhang Jinfeng announced that the People’s Republic of China had never politically engaged with Pol Pot or the Democratic Kampuchea regime, she argued instead that Chinese assistance was humanitarian and limited to “food, hoes, and scythes.” [iii]

What could she mean?

China had supported the pre-1975 National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), and maintained close diplomatic ties with the regime after they came to power. It was one of only nine countries to keep an embassy in the country after April 1975. China had been the principal international supporter of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, acting as its main aid supplier, China was the only country to have any substantial presence there; there were thousands of Chinese technical experts living in the country. After the Vietnamese occupation of 1979 maintained material and diplomatic support for the resistance forces and eventually the formation of a four-party government.

Pol Pot’s only official visit outside Cambodia while in power as the leader Democratic Kampuchea was to China and North Korea. He arrived in Beijing 28 September 1977 and departed for Pyongyang on October 4, returning China a week later and returning to Cambodia on 22 October 1977. He signed agreements for increased military aid, training, and other assistance with both countries during this trip

.The People's Daily welcomes comrade-in-arms Pol Pot to China in 1977 Deng and Pol Pot During his visit to China, Pol Pot (on the left) met both Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng. Official undated Chinese photograph. People’s Daily on Pol Pot’s visit.

To suggest that “after their victory in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries turned to China largely by default” [iv] downplays the previous relationship that saw the Cambodian resistance have Beijing as its principal oversea location, supplier and international supporter.

True the People’s Republic of China hardly had an unblemished record of supporting Cambodian communists. China had backed the royalist Prince Norodom Sihanouk during the 1960s, rallied slowly behind Cambodian insurgents after Lon Nol took power in 1970, and pursued rapprochement with the United States in 1971–72.

But China housed Sihanouk in 1970 when he was overthrown by General Lon Nol. China still remained a good relationship with exiled Sihanouk, treated with all the honors due a head of state, providing him with sanctuary and the means to struggle against Lon Nol, Zhou Enlai conveyed a message to Sihanouk from Mao Zedong which stated:

The People’s Republic of China will scrupulously respect whatever decision Prince Norodom Sihanouk makes; if he wishes to put an end to his political career, following the coup d’etat two days ago. China will bow to that decision; but if Prince Sihanouk does not accept the fait accompli and decided to lead a national movement of anti-American resistance for the liberation of Cambodia, China will fully support Prince Sihanouk and will grant him all possible help, except aid in Chinese troops, to ensure that the just and patriotic struggle is successful. Nevertheless, the prince should be told that the struggle will be long and arduous and will have its discouraging moments. Therefore, Prince Sihanouk should take time to reflect deeply on this before making a decision.[v]

In 1971, Zhou Enlai told Henry Kissinger that the big difference between China and the United States was that while the Chinese helped the Vietnamese in their struggle against the USA, they never involved themselves with Vietnamese affairs and in the case of Sihanouk’s government, China followed the same principle.[vi]

There are often internal disputes within their government, and sometimes when they ask for our mediation, we say we will not stick our hands into it. But the amount of articles we carry in our press concerning publications and reports regarding the Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia (GRUNC) is unprecedented in our press and world history. Norodom Sihanouk has already published 21 proclamations to his people, and we have published them in our press and we have published them without changing a word. I really can find no example of a head of state invited abroad who has such extensive freedom”.[vii]

So ‘China Played No Role in Democratic Kampuchea Politics’?

It is difficult to imagine the Chinese were completely unaware of what was going on in the country. Academics have argued that at least 5,000 Chinese people were classified as technicians and working in the then-Democratic Kampuchea as advisors to Pol Pot and his Standing Committee. In August 1975 the first team of experts from the Chinese Ministry of Defence arrived in Phnom Penh followed on 13 September 1975 by General Deng Kun-an, appointed Head of the Chinese Group of Experts. And to show how important Cambodia was to China, on 12 October 1975, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army arrived in Cambodia.   Chinese Dignitaries and Foreign Experts, Chinese Embassy, Phnom Penh, September 1978.Chinese Dignitaries and Foreign Experts, Chinese Embassy, Phnom Penh, September 1978. Note in the middle of the first row (from left) Hu Yaobang, Yu Qiuli, and Wang Dongxing

Several analyses imply that Chinese advisers in Democratic Kampuchea, by doing nothing or by somehow benefiting from DK policy, were somehow complicit in the horrors of what was occurring in DK. Henri Locard implies that the ambassador, as “dean of the diplomatic corps,” enjoyed a unique and influential perch in Phnom Penh and served as the node through which radical Maoist policy was disseminated into DK. A judgement which over inflates the influence of the Chinese ambassador and is analytical flawed in its understanding of the workings of the regime. Democratic Kampuchea demonstrate it was not a client or vassal state but an authentic independent entity. Locard’s interpretation and argument is that China was somehow complicit in the regime’s policies and performance. Not surprisingly the Judgment of the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal of August 1979 also reflected that view: China ‘massively increased their military aid and set up a thick network of advisors to supervise all the activities’ of the DK leadership, ‘encouraged this clique to carry out a savage genocidal policy against our people . . . [and] war of aggression against Vietnam,’ and served as ‘the invidious instigators of this plan.

These charges are not true.

Looking at the question of China’s diplomatic role, the degree of ideological affinity and engagement and the material aid in national building provided by the Chinese authorities, and the involvement in the armed conflict involving China, Vietnam and Kampuchea provides some basis to interrogate the statement that ‘China Played No Role in Democratic Kampuchea Politics’.

This raises the question of the nature and extent of China’s influence in Democratic Kampuchea. In terms of aid, did China became very influential in the country by sending thousands of technicians to help the Khmer Rouge revolution, or was there a pre-existing ideological affinity that underlie the relationship?

When the United States, in an intrusion by its aircraft into the airspace of Democratic Kampuchea on February 25 1976, bombed Siem Reap, killing and wounding dozens of people and causing heavy damage to the city, the Chinese government declared in People’s Daily:

The Chinese people and Cambodian people are close comrades-in-arms- and brothers. They have always enjoyed each other’s sympathy and support in protracted revolutionary struggles. The Chinese people highly appraise the remarkable successes achieved by the Cambodian “people in the great cause of consolidating the fruits of victory in the revolution and building up their country, and resolutely support their just struggle to defend their independence, territory, sovereignty and national dignity. We are convinced that, confronted by the heroic Cambodian people, all provocations and aggression by imperialism and other reactionaries are doomed to ignominious defeat.[viii]

While the communist parties of the two states often emphasised ideological solidarity in speeches and newsletters, Beijing not happy: Sihanouk’s press secretary Nouth Choeum asserted: ‘the Chinese are worried. They say the CPK ‘walk too fast . . . [the Khmer Rouge] do not have the backing of the Chinese who are above all realists when it comes to making revolution.’ [ix]

Foreign commentary normally alluded to the Cambodian leadership as ‘Following Peking’s Revolutionary Model’.[x] The argument that the Chinese revolutionary state—particularly the more radical phases such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—provided both a blueprint and an inspiration for the Cambodian revolution.

A standard view that developed is seen in the work of Locard that “Extremists in China used Cambodia as an experimental laboratory to test diehard Maoist policies, which were in the process of failing in China: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution whose concept involved, in part, abolishing all institutions and starting from scratch.”

Again there is assertion rather than evidence of a process of command and control. The idea of Chinese control of the Kampuchean movement goes against the known provable behaviour of that movement’s leadership and its endeavours to avoid control from Hanoi.

It may be that Chinese theorists inspired them, it was nevertheless Cambodians who headed the regime based on “the ideology of a minuscule group of individuals pretending to be assigned the mission of resurrecting their civilization,” as Locard argues. His position reflects a particular analysis (that tends to ignore inconvenient development realities of the short-lived regime) of a policy goal of a return of Cambodia to some mythical pure state that supposedly existed in its distant past during the golden age of Angkor (c 800-1400 AD) where the Khmers flourished and to do so by instituting a cultural revolution modelled on Mao’s cultural revolution in China, that seeks to exceed his in its comprehensiveness.

This meant that everything foreign had to go, which included education and the educated, and all foreign influences, so that those who lived in the cities and were therefore tainted by foreign influences were driven out of them and became the “New People” forced to live in slave like conditions in the countryside, whilst being murdered if they showed any sign of foreignness, such as being educated, or any sign of disobedience. The “Old People”, those already living in the countryside as peasants, about half the population, were pretty much left alone.

This apocalyptic scenario forms a simplistic “Year Zero” thesis that is easy to grasp however undermined by a more detail look at the social cost of the radical transformation and the context in which it was started. There was no simple deindustrialisation of society undertaken and the failure to stabilise the new state and its development strategies in the aftermath of civil war proved less attractive explanation than the presentation of the DK regime as a product of fanatical xenophobia.

The Cambodians were publically referred to as “comrades-in-arms[xi] and received by the leading figures in China’s political and government structures. In return, the praised “the great, splendid and solid militant unity and brotherly revolutionary friendship between the Kampuchean revolutionary organisation and the Communist Party of China and between the people of the two countries.” [xii] This was not simply revolutionary rhetoric but reflected a genuine relationship. The Kampuchean response to the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 saw a public display of “most profound condolences” with its political leadership visiting Sun Hao, China’s ambassador in Phnom Penh.

On behalf of the Kampuchean revolutionary organisation[xiii] Pol Pot expressed their “extreme grief and regret to extend our boundless revolutionary affection and esteem to the memory of the sublime soul of Chairman Mao Tsetung[xiv]

Fulsome praise for “the closest and most warm hearted comrades-in-arms of the Kampuchean people” was evident in the memorial address given by Pol Pot on September 18th in Phnom Penh to a meeting of around 1,000 people including all the ministers of the new state. It would be fair to draw the conclusion by the tone of the address and its content, of a close identification and admiration for the late Chairman explicitly described as “the best and most valuable example for the contemporary world revolutionary movement[xv] . While the admiration for Mao and the Communist Party of China was expressed, Pol Pot underlined that their relationship was based “firmly on Marxism-Leninism and on the principles of genuine equality, mutual respect, mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and independence and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”. The steadfastness of these principles enunciated partly explains the Kampuchean response that “warmly acclaim the victory of smashing the counter-revolutionary “gang of four” anti-party clique[xvi] – theirs was not to interfere in China’s domestic politics and the expectation was China refraining from meddling in theirs. There may be elements of realpolitik with regard to their principle international supporter, but the Cambodian communists went beyond flattering lip service and placed Mao at the centre of the political universe, invoking the anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist pantheon: “his name and his revolutionary thought will always be a beacon for the Chinese revolution and the world revolution just as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin are beacons guiding the road of revolution.” [xvii]

This would place Cambodian communists within the Maoist paradigm. However their political practice once in power did not use well-identified Maoist techniques such as the mass line and united front politics, the rhetoric and similarities with Cultural Revolution mass mobilisation were selective and has led judgements that identified the Kampuchean revolutionary organisation as ‘maoist’ when arguably its lesser known indigenous and independent influence were more influential in shaping and directing its politics. [xviii]

Matthew Galway [xix]does argue that Pol Pot visited Beijing in 1965–1966, was awoken fully to Mao’s ideas, and return to Cambodia a Maoist convert. Although he concludes that despite some similarities, Mao’s application of Marxism in China—as he outlined in “On New Democracy”—and his vision for a new revolutionary culture were vastly different from Pol Pot’s domestication of Maoism in Kampuchea.

Pol Pot’s radical social transformation implementation of his Maoist vision, however, entailed surpassing all ideas and programs—including those of China, Vietnam, and North Korea—which he believed had not gone far enough in achieving pure socialism. Also, as part of Kampucheanization, Pol Pot emphasized landlordism, as if the Cambodian agrarian situation were commensurable with that of China. But in adapting Maoist doctrine to Cambodian conditions, he ignored that the situation in Cambodia’s rural sector lacked the same degrees of destitution and concentration of rice lands in the hands of big landlords that had characterized the Chinese situation [xx]

Pol Pot emphasized landlordism as if the Cambodian agrarian situation resembled that of China, despite the fact that the “rural merchant was the major exploiter of the Khmer peasantry” through usury and inequitable pricing systems that prevented peasants from maximizing agricultural surpluses.  [xxi]

Academics contest the degree of the influence of Maoist thought on the CPK leadership under Pol Pot but point to the similarities between the Chinese experiences under Mao and the radical domestic policies of the DK regime. Whereas Kenneth Quinn [xxii] sees Pol Pot declaring himself Maoist, Craig Etcheson sees the identified Maoist faction of the CPK losing out in top level purge. These nuisances in argument are not to the forefront of a public debate set firmly in the framework of genocidal regime.

The standard academic study, Andrew Mertha’s Brothers in Arms [xxiii] explores the central question of why was a powerful state like China unable to influence its far weaker and ostensibly dependent client state, Democratic Kampuchea (DK). His study shows that in the deeply uneven bilateral relationship, on the policy front at least, China was the one that ended up as the subordinate party. In China’s relationship with DK, the expected outcome—a relationship in which Beijing dictated critical strategic terms to Phnom Penh—never came to pass. According to Mertha the idea of Cambodia being China’s “revolutionary brethren” only went so far. While there is a common link made between Maoism and the CPK, particularly when comparing Pol Pot’s Four Year Plan in 1976 and China’s Great Leap Forward, the reality of the relationship between the two communist states was quite different, and this was reflected in the relationship between officials in Cambodia. He said: “By 1975, the Chinese, having learned from bitter experience, were warning the Cambodians against rushing too quickly towards realising their revolutionary goals. Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith are said to have smiled condescendingly.”

John Ciorciari, [xxiv]agreed with Mertha that politically speaking, China’s influence in Democratic Kampuchea was not as great as some might think, adding that its “support for disastrous Khmer Rouge policies can easily be overstated”.

He continued: “Mertha has shown that important limits to Chinese influence also existed at the bureaucratic level, as fragmented Chinese aid-administering agencies struggled to work with mismatched, underdeveloped, and sometimes obstinate Democratic Kampuchea institutions.”

Observers assume a tacit alliance whereas John Ciorciari argues that, “The evidence reveals a complex partnership characterised by mutual suspicion and held together more by convergent strategic aims and functional cooperation than ideational affinity. China developed significant bureaucratic and technical influence at key nodes throughout Democratic Kampuchea, but evidence suggests that China’s influence over high-level Khmer Rouge policies on security and domestic affairs was weak. Some Chinese officials disapproved of DK policies and urged moderation, but the xenophobic DK leadership defended its autonomy fiercely, and China trod gingerly, even when brutal and reckless DK policies jeopardised Democratic Kampuchea’s viability, embarrassed China abroad, and invited war with Vietnam. China’s conception of its strategic interests weakened Beijing’s leverage and enabled the DK leadership to manage the relationship to a significant degree.”[xxv]

So ‘China Played No Role in Democratic Kampuchea Politics’

Not strictly true. Chinese authorities offered advice in talks with Cambodian leaders – e.g. Mao Zedong did, at a meeting in Beijing in June 1975, cautioned Pol Pot:   CAMBODIA-GENOCIDE-TRIBUNAL-UN-FILES

You should not completely copy China’s experience, and should think for yourself. According to Marx, his theory is a guideline for action but not a doctrine.[xxvi]

There are other known occurrences of advice offered.

On August 26, 1975, Zhou Enlai received Norodom Sihanouk and his wife, accompanied by a Khmer Rouge delegation composed of Khieu Samphan and Madame Ieng Sary, at the hospital. Zhou was still fully lucid but much weakened by his illness and the treatment. This did not, however, prevent him from telling the Khmer Rouge leaders present at the hospital that “we the Chinese Communists must bear the distressing consequences of our own mistakes. We take the liberty of advising you not to attempt to reach the final stages of Communism with one great leap forward. You must proceed with much caution and proceed slowly with wisdom on the path leading to Communism.”

According to Jeldres, Prince Sihanouk’s private secretary , “From mid-1973, Zhou Enlai began a series of diplomatic discussions to try to establish a coalition in Cambodia, led by his friend Sihanouk, so as not to allow the Khmer Rouge to take over the country alone. Zhou Enlai was convinced that the Cambodian extremists’ takeover of the country would not be in Cambodia’s interests. He spoke to Henry Kissinger and to several ambassadors in Beijing. He tried to induce French president Georges Pompidou to raise the issue of Cambodia, and of his friend Sihanouk, with the Americans.

However, Zhou’s failing health and internal political developments in China worked against his efforts to see his friend Sihanouk at the helm of a coalition in Cambodia.

The French historian Henri Locard’s book, “Pourquoi les Khmers Rouges,” (Vendemiaire 2013) looking into the whys of the DK regime repeats the alleged story that the Chinese political theorist Zhang Chunqiao first drafted the constitution of Democratic Kampuchea, promulgated in January 1976. Zhang Chunqiao was a member of the Gang of Four who played a leading role in China’s Cultural Revolution. Jeldres has also alluded to Zhang’s “long association with the Khmer Rouge leadership”:

In Beijing, Sary began meeting regularly with members of the Shanghai radicals, also known as the “Gang of Four”, in particular with the leading member of the Gang of Four, Zhang Chunqiao, who had a long association with the Khmer Rouge leadership, and would visit Cambodia secretly in mid-April 1976 to help draft the constitution of the new Democratic Kampuchea. [xxvii]

However this alleged episode gets repeated although it is dubious to endorse the veracity of this story- it only has a single source, a Hong Kong journal article [xxviii] Given the conceit of the CPK leadership it would be out of character that it relied on an outside source as this story suggests. That Zhang Chunqiao was so directly involved in Kampuchean policies, was said Mr. Locard “mind-boggling”. What also undermines the story is that the Kampuchean leadership led by Pol Pot ,following the arrest of the Gang of Four, issuing a public statement denouncing the ‘counter-revolutionary Gang of Four anti-Party clique.’ The regime thus rallied quickly to the new Chinese leadership headed by Hua Guofeng despite their supposed ideological preference for the Gang of Four, confident in China’s continued strategic commitment to Cambodia.


One of the “Gang of Four,” Zhang Chunqiao, who had taken a personal interest in the Cambodian issue, escorts Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Princess Monique, and Ieng Sary, a Khmer Rouge leader, to a banquet in Beijing. [xxix]


So ‘China Played No Role in Democratic Kampuchea Politics’

True in the sense that ‘the Chinese government never took part in or intervened into the politics of Democratic Kampuchea’.

Even if Jeldres argues that it did provide guidance, the question is how far this advice was influential or followed. Chinese involvement and assistance to the new regime in Cambodia began immediately. On 24 April 1975, on board the same plane taking Ieng Sary back to Cambodia was Shen Chia, deputy Director of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the CCP, who was travelling to Phnom Penh to assess with the new leaders their immediate needs.[xxx] The Chinese conveyed a message to Pol Pot, through Ieng Sary, to replace the troops who had seized Phnom Penh with new units and to entrust its management to a civilian administration, citing their own example in Beijing in the aftermath of their victory in 1949.[xxxi] As history records, there were different policy decision taken such as the mass evacuation of the capital.

Deng counselled that as the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) had fought and won a victory together it should in future maintain national union and keep the cooperation of Sihanouk, Penn Nouth and other nationalist personalities in order to create political stability in the country. China’s repeated insistence on the importance of Sihanouk’s continuing role as leader of FUNK and Head of State of GRUNC was not translated into influence in the new state where Sihanouk remained an isolated figure-head under virtual house arrest.

So ‘China Played No Role in Democratic Kampuchea Politics’

Again, not true if one assesses the impact of politics in China as understood and processed by Cambodian leftists. However China cannot be held responsible for others conclusions and actions.

In early May 1975, the Chinese embassy reopened. Reports by Chinese officials stationed in Democratic Kampuchea was that their access to information about events outside of their immediate workplace, including atrocities, was quite limited and dependent on rumours and euphemistic reports from their Cambodian counterparts and handlers – quests who avoided getting ensnared in what they called the internal affairs of DK.

Andrew Mertha observed, “Although my interviewees—retired Chinese technicians who managed infrastructure projects in Democratic Kampuchea—tended to become a bit guarded when discussing this, it became clear that they did not, nor could not, know the extent of the killings that were taking place, even as they were aware that something sinister was afoot…… And since they knew well what being on the wrong end of a political purge was like, they tended to show as much compassion and humanity to their Cambodian colleagues as was possible without raising the suspicion of DK cadres. Former CPK soldiers press-ganged into building the Chinese-supervised Krang Leav airfield project in Kampong Chhnang Province recalled the Chinese as being constructive in their advice, and, when DK cadres were not looking, giving the Cambodians extra food rations and cigarettes”.[xxxii]

Elizabeth Becker’s account also conveys something of the isolation felt by the representatives of China in Kampuchea in which a senior Chinese diplomat reports that PRC diplomats had restricted access and were closely guarded but adding that: ‘We heard about violence. Not exact stories but rumors. We did guess many were dying in the countryside at the hands of local functionaries’[xxxiii]

Talking to newspaper reporters, Suong Sikoeun, a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs official during the Democratic Kampu­chea regime, said the people who blame China for the death and destruction caused under the DK regime are wrong. “We should not blame China,” he said. “We should blame ourselves. China has no responsibility for the Khmer Rouge. Chinese leaders taught Cambodian leaders about modernization, not extermination.” [xxxiv]

In Sopheap, another DK Foreign Ministry official who lives in Pailin, agrees with Suong Sikoeun and said he doesnot understand why people are angry at China. If people want to judge China, then you should also judge the US, France and other countries. The great powers (particularly the United States) have no interest in providing an honest accounting of why the KR came to power in the first place, or how the United States supported them and shielded them from justice for decades, even after they were driven from power.

I don’t know why people are making an issue about this,” he said. “I cannot find any evidence of interference in Cambodian affairs from China. At that time, China advised us to broaden our relationship with other countries and not be too harsh on the US. It is a mistake of Democratic Kam­puchea that we didn’t listen to them.” [xxxv]

BookcoverSummary of Brother-in-Arms content 

  1. 1. The Khmer Rouge Bureaucracy

This chapter describes the political and policy apparatus of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), tracing how power and authority were refracted throughout the system along functional and spatial dimensions, respectively, to underscore the variation in institutional integrity necessary to translate the power emerging from it into concrete policy locally. It shows that the state apparatus in DK did provide a modicum of governance despite the fact that it took some time to establish them, and even after they were up and running, they were unable to function effectively because of the deadly political atmosphere. However, by the latter half of the regime, the intuitive and flexible approach to governance and administration had ossified into a rigidly cellular and risk-averse collection of individual officials throughout the system, all of whom had little reason to trust any of their colleagues. Ultimately, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) imploded on itself as the search for enemies seeking to undermine the state led to a series of purges that decimated its ranks.

  1. The Bureaucratic Structure of Chinese Overseas Assistance

This chapter considers the environment encountered by the thousands of Chinese technicians, skilled workers, and other expatriates working in Democratic Kampuchea (DK). It shows that, unlike the conventional wisdom, there appears to have been little sense of socialist brotherhood. Rather, Chinese workers appeared to have expected a professional experience in which they might act as mentors to a rising class of technical workers in DK. Although these Chinese experts were almost certainly aware that some horrific political violence was afoot—given their own, less lethal but nonetheless highly violent experiences in China—there was absolutely nothing that they could do about it, except perhaps help in a modest way by helping the Cambodians with whom they worked when their Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) supervisors were not looking. Finally, while assistance to DK afforded Chinese experts the opportunity to ply their trades, there was always a possibility that organizational and institutional problems would prevent them from doing so. In fact, Chinese foreign assistance projects were often at the mercy of institutional constraints among Chinese bureaucracies as well as the state apparatus of the recipient country.

  1. DK Pushback and Military Institutional Integrity

This chapter presents the first of three case studies driving the argument of this book, namely that Chinese influence was largely insignificant when it came to shaping Democratic Kampuchea (DK) goals and means of achieving them. The case involves the planning and construction of Krang Leav airfield, located just outside the Cambodian village of Palarng. First, the case shows that decision to place the airfield in Kampong Chhnang is just one of many instances where DK preferences won out over Chinese ones. Second, even if China wanted to, it was unable to influence DK in the implementation of policy because the bureaucracy in charge of the airfield, the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea’s (RAK) Division 502, was among the strongest and most centralized in the country. As a result, Krang Leav is a rare instance in which a major Chinese assistance project in DK was an unqualified success; indeed, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 was the only thing that prevented the airfield from becoming fully operational.

  1. The Failure of the Kampong Som Petroleum Refinery Project

This chapter presents a case study of the repair and refitting of the Kampong Som petroleum refinery, describing the project as one of the most spectacular failures of Chinese assistance to Democratic Kampuchea (DK). China was unable to shape the DK policy area of infrastructure development for two reasons. First, DK institutions were simply incapable of managing the complex tasks assigned to them, particularly once the internal political purges began. Skilled Cambodians had either been killed during the early stages of the revolution or were hiding their identities in order to avoid such a fate. Thus, the majority of managers as well as laborers at Kampong Som were Cambodian children, aged eight to fifteen. The second reason has to do with the fact that the Chinese institutions were themselves fragmented and incapable of effectively planning and coordinating the various technical and managerial dimensions of the project, let alone of exploiting DK institutional weakness, however modestly, to influence DK policy.

  1. China’s Development of Democratic Kampuchean Trade

This chapter looks at trade and commerce, the one area where China was able to shape Democratic Kampuchea (DK) practices significantly—as well as the institutions involved. This was because Chinese commercial institutions did not suffer from significant fragmentation and lack of coordination, and because DK’s Ministry of Commerce was institutionally complex and fragmented. This allowed China to colonize the institution structurally and especially procedurally in ways unimaginable in the case of military assistance. Like much that was being constructed and initiated at the time, this commercial infrastructure was modest in scale, and it was cut short by the Vietnamese invasion of 1979. Yet it appears to have been a viable forum for the exchange of ideas and expertise, one that could have been developed into an important asset in terms of creating revenue and maintaining informal contacts with a wider range of international actors than was willing to admit public dealings with the Phnom Penh regime.


According to Mertha, two main factors prevented China from effectively influencing leaders of the Khmer Rouge in their military and economic policies.

The first was there was a real suspicion on the part of the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea against any outsiders, even including China which was their best friend at that time,” he said, adding that the regime was cautious of efforts by Beijing to colonize their country. The DK leadership would accept Chinese aid and technical guidance but would defend its policy freedom. “The second was, I think, [that] China was unable to work with the lack of infrastructure and trained personnel on the ground in Cambodia.”

Mertha said that the regime resisted Chinese influence on its military; there was no compelling proof of Chinese involvement in the internal security apparatus. In March 1976, the DK Central Committee decided that it needed Chinese military support to fortify the state against Vietnam, but in terms of internal security, ‘inside the country, we can master it.’ [xxxvi]

However he suggests that the regime’s inattention to Democratic Kampuchea’s commercial sector allowed Beijing to benefit from essentially controlling the country’s exports.

So ‘China Played No Role in Democratic Kampuchea Politics’

True given the condition-free nature of Chinese aid: and it was a bit more than the suggested “assistance through food, hoes and scythes”. Foreign aid, mainly from China secured promises of economic aid, technical assistance, and military training. Clearly, the intense involvement of Chinese advisors and technicians in the economic infrastructure of the country reflected a commitment of support from China for the development plans of the DK regime. However those domestic objectives were not dictated by a Chinese plan but a Kampuchean commitment one. Drawing on Mertha’s work illustrates the extent of that support given by China:

  • Chinese technical advisors were also engaged in supervising factories and infrastructure. CPK officials requested extensive Chinese technical support on at least eight sites: a weapons factory, an ammunition factory, a metal production site, a weapons warehouse, an airport, a seaport, a paper mill, and a rubber treatment factory.
  • This assistance extended to advising on banking and finance, While the DK leadership had abolished the currency China had printed for them, in 2012, the former deputy director general of the DK Overseas Commercial Bank testified at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, describing how China helped fund and establish the bank and train Cambodian officials to facilitate a developing trade relationship, whereby products at Kampuchean factories were shipped to China in exchange for machinery and other PRC exports to Democratic Kampuchea.
  • Numerous Chinese advisors reportedly visited the dam and reservoir construction project at Trapeang Thma in northwest Cambodia,
  • Former DK cadres indicate that PRC advisors also made regular visits to a rubber factory in Kampong Cham province and that many Chinese worked with or helped supervise Cambodians in the field. At a tyre factory in Kandal, a former worker also recalls extended visits by up to 20 Chinese advisors and technicians and saw them regularly in the town of Ta Khmau. All of these worksites are located near mass burial pits from Khmer Rouge killings, though it is unclear whether Chinese officials witnessed extrajudicial killings.

Mertha said. “Chinese assistance dwarfed that of all the other countries combined. China was treated by the Democratic Kampuchea leaders as a different type of entity than the others,

This was because of the vast quantity of aid it gave to the DK: firstly, in military form, before and after 1975 with tons of weapons and deliver them through the port of Kampong Saom. It continued throughout the party’s rule in other forms: the building of roads and railways; the establishing of the Kampong Som petroleum refinery and the airfield at Kampong Chhnang; the processing of Chinese crude oil from Daqing oil fields. The relationship also meant that China could exploit Cambodia’s natural rubber production, and work on its electricity grid. Mertha suggested that Phnom Penh’s increased electricity production at the time may have been geared towards eventually repopulating the capital as part of the development plans for the Cambodian economy.

Economic aid also flowed in the form of rice, fuel, and other products. Chinese ships holding 200,000–400,000 tons of cargo began arriving every month with aid supplies. Initial shipments included large quantities of rice and civilian goods, and by mid-summer, China reportedly began to supply weapons as well. Chinese leaders saw support to Cambodia as an important hedge against a deteriorating relationship with Vietnam –

In October, Chinese deputy chief-of-staff Wang Shanrong travelled to Phnom Penh and announced a draft military aid plan. Chinese trade grew, and a former DK official working in Kampong Saom estimates that up to 80% of Kampuchean imports came from China in the 1975–76 period. A former DK Commerce Ministry official reports that in exchange for machinery, Democratic Kampuchea sent large regular shipments of rice, grain products, and other materials to China.

Chinese officials were sometimes frustrated by the Khmer Rouge refusal to accept aid and advice. When Chinese official Fang Yi travelled to Phnom Penh in December 1976, he asserted that the Cambodians ‘have gone too far in promoting self-reliance,’ noting that the DK regime had not even used the $20 million worth of grant-in-aid commodities that the PRC had provided in 1975. Chinese officials believed that the regime had gone ‘too far in practicing egalitarianism and self-reliance.’ Sentiments repeated a decade later when, Xinhua journalist, Yang Mu identified what was agreed as gone wrong: “Officials made mistakes in trying too hard to implement policies…trying to establish socialism too quickly, not taking progress a step at a time, being excessive in all activities…purges and fear were not a good tactic of ruling” (Reports from the Jungle of Kampuchea, 1987:225-226 – although not reprinted in the second English language edition produced in 2010 by Red Sun Publishing).

In February 1976, Wang Shanrong returned to Phnom Penh and concluded a more extensive military aid agreement. China planned to provide 320 military advisors; equipment for radar, anti-aircraft artillery, and a military airport; four escort ships and torpedo boats; and equipment for a tank regiment, signal regiment, three artillery field regiments, and a pontoon battalion for the army. Wang also said China would assume responsibility for construction of a naval base, airport, munitions depot, and enlargement of a weapons-repair facility Chinese army trainers/ advisors and did not command operations in the field.

DK military reports show that by August 1976, technical advisors from the Chinese government were providing advice and training to CPK officers on how to construct the airfield. An estimated 10,000 people are believed to have laboured at the site, and many perished. Hundreds of Chinese technicians and advisors arrived to help build the airport and undertake other military preparations. Those working on the Krang Leav airfield lived in a foreign experts building about three kilometers east of the site—that is, outside of the city of Kampong Chhnang—and not far from the field kitchen and barracks housing the Cambodian labour forcel. Although one could see the residence from the airfield, the Chinese workers had no contact with the Cambodian workers except on site. Every morning at 7:00 a.m., four or five small buses would arrive and take the hundred or so Chinese workers to various sections, including the control tower, an airstrip, a garage for cars, a concrete road to and from Kampong Chhnang, a timber processing site, and a testing ground for assessing the correct pressure for the concrete.[xxxvii]

Given that the Khmer Rouge had no air force and that the base included a command center built into a nearby mountain, speculation was raised that PLA engineers supervised the facility intended as a forward base for the PLA air force. Whereas, in reality, China’s first overseas military base did not get established until forty years later in 2017 in the Horn of Africa state of Djibouti.

The port at Kampong Saom – the primary conduit for bilateral trade and a significant site for military cooperation, with DK troops in Kampong Saom were training under Chinese military advisors and learning how to operate the Chinese naval vessels dispatched to Democratic Kampuchea; at least one hundred Chinese workers were stationed around the port.

The Case of the Petroleum Refinery at Kampong Som provides Mertha with evidence of China’s assistance and the problems those advisors faced. The project was beset by problems. An on-site worker summed up the situation at the oil refinery in brusque and dire, but nonetheless accurate, terms that matched the general mood of workers who had been working on the project on a long-term basis:

It has been three years since we have been working on this refinery. We have to recover the operating room, but there have been so many problems, especially with electricity. Also, the supply chain from China to here has simply been disconnected. The Cambodian side seems to refuse to learn about what we are doing. We also need to train translators. The Cambodians who should be in charge of production are poorly educated, and too young. The techniques and methods of operation for oil refinery are unique, and workers need a basic industrial knowledge base.[xxxviii]

building railways

Within the narrow scope of their technical advisory roles Andrew Mertha has shown, through a series of recent interviews with former Chinese personnel stationed in Cambodia, that PRC employees generally had very limited contact with the local population beyond their professional interactions. Their experience was less one of fraternal solidarity and mentorship than disdain for the technical incompetence of their (mostly young) Cambodian counterparts and frustration with the inefficient, opaque DK bureaucracy.

So ‘China Played No Role in Democratic Kampuchea Politics’

Clearly China’s alliance with Democratic Kampuchea was a strategic necessity that came out of the larger Sino-Soviet split and China’s increasing nervousness about Vietnamese behavior.

In late 1977, Vietnam began developing contacts with DK rebel groups in eastern Kampuchea, including So Phim, and Vietnam launched a military strike across the border. Chinese vice premier Chen Yonggui visited Democratic Kampuchea as an apparent show of support, while in Beijing the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee authorised dispatching higher levels of arms and other military equipment.

On 31 December Democratic Kampuchea severed diplomatic ties, and China cut off all military cooperation with Vietnam, accusing Vietnam of ‘aggression.’

Zhou Enlai’s widow was sent to Phnom Penh on an official visit. Although the visit was geared in part to show PRC support for the Pol Pot regime, she appears to have borne a message from Beijing advising the CPK to moderate its approach to the border dispute

In March 1978, a harsh Vietnamese crackdown on private businesses of the ethnic Chinese Hoa population led to waves of refugees and exacerbated the growing rift. Chinese rhetoric hardened, and its policy shifted from encouraging negotiation towards deterring Vietnam from invading Cambodia. It sent a team of engineers to rebuild the railway between Kampong Sam and Phnom Penh, which passed near the Vietnamese border, and the engineers remained in place even after completing their task, perhaps to establish a Chinese ‘trip-wire’. Deng promised Son Sen enough equipment for three divisions and enough food, medicine, and ammunition for approximately 100,000 troops by the end of 1978. With more weaponry and advisors, the DK army increased the frequency of its forays into Vietnam.

Similar border disputes with Thailand proved to be non-escalating and limited economic cooperation between both states could be maintained throughout the period of Democratic Kampuchea , in the case of Pol Pot, attacking Vietnamese villages inside Vietnam, both provoked (and used to excuse ) the subsequent invasion of Cambodia.

Vietnam asked:

Who are behind these hangmen whose hands are smeared with the blood of the Kampuchean people, including the Cham, who have been almost wiped out as an ethnic group, the Viet, and the Hoa? This is no mystery to the world. The Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique are only a cheap instrument of the bitterest enemy of peace and mankind.[xxxix]

By autumn, an estimated 6,000 Chinese military advisors were in the country, along with considerably more Chinese technicians. China continued to voice strong support for Democratic Kampuchea, and DK officials reported ‘agreement on all issues’, especially ‘mutual support to win victory against the invasion of the Soviets’ and ‘their satellite, the land-encroaching Vietnam’.

Unwilling to abandon the DK regime but seeing war as nearly inevitable, China sent additional aid, including arms, radio equipment, and canned food into Cambodia for a protracted guerrilla campaign that could bleed Vietnam. Reports circulated that China refused a request to provide Chinese ground troops. An alleged Chinese document from 1979 (the ‘Geng Biao report’) – Keng Piao’s Report on the Situation of the Indochinese Peninsula, -indicated that Chinese officials deemed it imperative to support their allies ‘no matter what kinds of mistakes the Cambodian Communist Party . . .committed in the past.’[xl]

As Vietnamese forces swept into Cambodia and approached Phnom Penh in early January 1979, China evacuated its advisors and diplomatic personnel, destroyed embassy documents, ferried Sihanouk and his family to Thailand, and soon set up an embassy in the Cardammon Mountains to help support the reconstituted National Army of Kampuchea. [xli] China, working with Thailand, continuously supplied weapons to three Cambodian resistance factions, and supporting the diplomatic integrity of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in the international arena.

After the Paris Agreements of October 1991 were signed, China’s presences inside Cambodia increased as Hun Sen started informal relationship with Beijing after the coup in 1997. Hun Sen Visited Beijing in 1999. Following the past decades, Hun Sen has cultivated ties with China, expelling Taiwan’s unofficial liaison office from Phnom Penh, and now buried the past and is embracing China, which he sees as a means of bringing economic development to Cambodia. Sino-Cambodian relations remains strong even with the experiences during the interlude of the few years of the DK regime in the late 1970s. It has become a major source of foreign assistance and foreign investment in Cambodia. Most PRC aid programs and projects in Cambodia today involve technical assistance, grants or low-interest loans, and construction of public buildings and infrastructure involving Chinese companies.

Whether China plays a role in Cambodia today is not in dispute. Since the late 1990s, China has provided military assistance to the kingdom in the form of military barracks, school, hospital, trucks, and ambulances. China reportedly also has provided military and police training and in return, Cambodia has voiced its support of the “one-China” principle, despite its significant economic relations with Taiwan. The normalisation of relations were signalled when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Cambodia in April 2006, he pledged US$600 million in aid reinforcing the tie between the two countries (Cambodia, 2006). .






[i] Ragos-Espinas, M. (1983) Democratic Kampuchea 1975-1978, Quezon City: Asian Center, University of the Philippines. p. 44

[ii] Reprinted in: Democratic Kampuchea, a Workers’ and Peas­ants’ State in Southeast Asia, (Embassy of Democratic Kampuchea in Berlin, GDR. March 1977).

[iii] Kong Sothanarith, “China Played No Role in Khmer Rouge Politics: Ambassador,” CAAINews Media, January 23, 2010,

[iv] John D. Ciorciari, China and the Pol Pot regime Cold War History, 2013

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Nixon Presidential Library, Box 1034, Polo II-HAK China Trip – October 1971, Transcript of meetings, NARA II, College Park, Maryland

[vii] China, King Sihanouk and Democratic Kampuchea: A Case Study of Twin-track Diplomacy by Julio A. Jeldres

[viii] Resolute Support – for Cambodia’s Just Stand. Renmin Ribao Commentator, March 5 1976

[ix] Is Sihanouk’s Exile Coming to an End?’ Far Eastern Economic Review, 1 Aug. 1975, 22;

[x] see Ian Dunbar with Edith Lenart, Far Eastern Economic Review, 23 May 1975, 22–23

[xi]    Peking Review No.39 September 24th 1976

[xii]  Peking Review No.41 October 8th 1976

[xiii] The existence of the Communist Party of Kampuchea was not publically acknowledge until April 1977

[xiv] Peking Review No.40 September 30th 1976

[xv]  Peking Review No.41 October 8th 1976

[xvi] Peking Review No.45 November 5th 1976

[xvii] Peking Review No.41 October 8th 1976:32

[xviii] Contending analysis of the ideological nature of the Communist Party of Kampuchea –  see note xx and amongst others, Grabowsky, V. Democratic Kampuchea: Theses on the Kampuchean Revolution 1975-78 Kampuchea Bulletin Nos 9-10 Sept/Dec 1981; and Condescending Saviours: What Went Wrong with the Pol Pot Regime. A World To Win No.25 1999; Michael Vickery (1984) Cambodia 1975-1982, George Allen & Unwin; and Kiernan, Ben (2008) The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 Yale University Press.

[xix] From Revolutionary Culture to Original Culture and Back: “On New Democracy” and the Kampucheanization of Marxism-Leninism, 1940–1965. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review E-Journal No. 24 (September 2017) • Confidential 1977 CPK Party Centre document that reveals the extent to which Mao’s rebranding of Marxism-Leninism influenced his engagement with Maoism was published in Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-1977 (Southeast Asia Studies Monograph Series) 1988.

[xx] Willmott, W.E. (1981) The Analytical Errors of the Kampuchean Communist Party. Pacific Affairs Vol.54 No.2 Summer 1981, 215–216; and Frieson, Kate (1988). The Political Nature of Democratic Kampuchea. Pacific Affairs, Vol.61 No.3 pp.405-427

[xxi] Willmott 1981, 220.

[xxii] “Explaining the Terror,” Cambodia 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 1989

[xxiii] Andrew Mertha (2014) Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (Cornell University Press)

[xxiv] Assistant professor in public policy at the University of Michigan and co-author (with Anne Heindel) of Hybrid Justice: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. University of Michigan Press 2014

[xxv] Ciorciari, John D. (2013) China and the Pol Pot regime Cold War History,

[xxvi] Cold War International History Project Working Paper 22, 77 Conversations Between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964-77 (May 1998) :191

[xxvii] Quoted in China, King Sihanouk and Democratic Kampuchea: A Case Study of Twin-track D Diplomacy by Julio A Jeldres

[xxviii] Hu Ben and Huang Zhangjin, “Shen pan hong se gao mian” (Trial of the Khmer Rouge), Hong Kong, Feng Huang Zhou Khan (Phoenix Weekly) 5 March 2008, p. 28.

[xxix] A Personal Reflection on Norodom Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai: An Extraordinary Friendship on the Fringes of the Cold War. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review E-Journal No. 4 (September 2012) • (

[xxx] Suong Sikoeun lived in China during three periods to do work for the Khmer Rouge—from 1970 to 1974, from 1979 to 1980 and from 1990 to 1992—and said he learned much from his fellow revolutionaries. His biography “Itineraire d’un intellectuel khmer rouge,” [Itinerary of a Khmer Rouge Intellectual.] Paris: Les Editions du Cerf Paris. 2013:189

[xxxi] Ibid. op. cit. p. 191 see: China Not To Blame, Ex-Khmer Rouge Say by Gina Chon and Thet Sambath | The Cambodian Daily , November 10, 2000

[xxxii] Andrew Mertha, ‘Surrealpolitik: The Experience of Chinese Experts in Democratic Kampuchea, 1975–1979’, Cross-Currents No. 4 (Sept. 2012)

[xxxiii] Becker, E. (1998) When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution (New York: Public Affairs, 278

[xxxiv] The Cambodian Daily November 10, 2000

[xxxv] Ditto

[xxxvi] in Chandler et al,(1988) Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-1977 (Southeast Asia Studies Monograph Series) p 8.

[xxxvii] Mertha, Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review

E-Journal No. 4 (September 2012) • (

[xxxviii] Ditto

[xxxix] Foreign Broadcast Information Service APA-78–119, 20 June 1978.

[xl] Keng Piao, “Report on the Situation on the Indochinese Peninsula”, Issues and Studies (Taiwan) 17: 1, 1981, 82. This report, also known as the Geng Biao Report, is regarded as China’s internal Document, translated by the Taiwan intelligence officer in English. China still does not say whether the content of the report is correct or not. But scholar Brantly Womack said the document “did come from official Chinese sources.” Brantly Womack (2003) “Asymmetry and Systemic Misperception: China, Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1970s”, Journal of Strategic Studies 26: 2, p119, note 48.

[xli] See Yun Shui, (2002)‘An Account of Chinese Diplomats Accompanying the Government of Democratic Kampuchea’s Move to the Cardamom Mountains’, Critical Asian Studies 34: 4 pp 497–519.



China Played No Role in Khmer Rouge Politics: Ambassador

By Kong Sothanarith, VOA Khmer Saturday, 23 January 2010
[Original report from Phnom Penh 22 January 2010 via CAAI News Media]
China’s ambassador to Cambodia told a group Friday that the Chinese had not aided the Khmer Rouge but had sought to keep Cambodians from suffering under the regime.
“The Chinese government never took part in or intervened into the politics of Democratic Kampuchea,” the ambassador, Zhang Jin Feng, told the opening class at Khong Cheu Institute.
The Chinese did not support the wrongful policies of the regime, but instead tried to provide assistance through food, hoes and scythes, Zhang said.
“If there were no food [assistance], the Cambodian people would have suffered more famine,” she said.
The comments come as the Khmer Rouge tribunal prepares for its second trial, of five high-ranking members of the regime.
However, a leading documentarian of the regime said the Chinese may want to revise that statement, given all the evidence that points to their involvement with the Khmer Rouge.
“According to documents, China intervened in all domains from the top to lower level: security, including the export of natural resources from Cambodia, like rice, bile of tigers, bears and animal skins to exchange for agriculture instruments,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“In the domain of security, Chinese advisers trained units to catch the enemy, and some of the trainers went to inspect the outcome of the training at the local level,” he said.



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