When China’s President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia this year, Tep Vanny, a 32-year-old housewife fighting eviction from her family home in central Phnom Penh, set off down Mao Tse-Tung Boulevard to try to deliver a plea for help to the Chinese Embassy.

Among thousands of residents in the Boeung Kak Lake district of the capital whose land has been targeted for redevelopment by a Chinese-financed real estate company, Tep Vanny carried a letter explaining the “sadness and suffering” caused by the project — which has turned Phnom Penh’s biggest lake into a barren, arid expanse of sand — and begging the Chinese leader to “intervene for a fair resolution of our land dispute problems.”

The letter never got delivered. Tep Vanny was driven from the embassy gate by a phalanx of security guards. Other would-be petitioners with land gripes were chased away by police on motorbikes.

China professes a policy of never interfering in the internal affairs of foreign lands. But in Cambodia, growing public fury over land grabs to make way for development projects involving Chinese investors has pushed Beijing to the center of one of this Southeast Asian nation’s most sensitive social and political issues.

“I had hoped that Chinese companies would help bring prosperity and development, but instead they brought only problems,” said Tep Vanny, who has helped spearhead a long campaign against forced evictions in the capital. The campaign has been surprisingly effective, mobilizing a wide array of people against the Boeung Kak Lake project, which is now at a standstill. It is unclear why construction has been halted and when it will resume.

On an official level, relations between Beijing and Phnom Penh are now at their warmest since the 1970s, when China pumped aid, arms and advisers into Cambodia to help the Khmer Rouge, which ruled here from 1975 to 1979 and abolished all land rights in a murderous communist revolution that dotted the country with “killing fields” and left up to a third of the population dead.

That shared revolutionary ardor faded long ago, replaced in recent years by the bonds of profit between Cambodia’s corrupt governing elite and Chinese companies looking for land to build on, rivers to dam, highways to pave and forests to cut down. Parts of this burgeoning economic alliance have brought undoubted benefits to ordinary Cambodians, most notably hundreds of miles of new roads and tens of thousands of jobs in Chinese-owned factories.

But the partnership has also stirred widespread public anger as Chinese investment has helped push hundreds of thousands from their homes. In the southwest of the country, a real estate company from Tianjin is building a casino and resort complex on what was supposed to be protected forestland. At the other end of Cambodia, Chinese investors have been given rights to mine for gold and develop plantations. In all, according to data collected by human rights activists in a survey of just half the country, about 420,000 Cambodians have been affected by evictions since 2003, many of them in relation to China-funded ventures.

A vital partner

Chinese companies, said Pung Chhiv Kek, president of Licadho, a group of human rights and social activists, “should be more cautious” and examine the consequences of their investments. Instead, she said, they often take the view that “they don’t have to care about people’s rights in China, so why should they care here?”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan blamed the public outcry over evictions on opposition politicians and said Cambodia, a small, poor nation with about 15 million people, has to develop its land in order to boost living standards.

China, he added, has done far more than the United States — which bombed the country mercilessly during the Vietnam War and is still pressing it to repay loans granted in the early 1970s — to help Cambodia recover from decades of conflict.

China has written off many old debts and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in new low-
interest credits to fund the construction, mostly by Chinese companies, of government buildings, dams, roads, bridges and ports. “The building where we sit is Chinese,” said Phay Siphan, referring to a shiny new complex that houses the offices of hundreds of officials. Chinese companies, meanwhile, have invested nearly $9 billion in Cambodia since 1994, according to official Chinese reports — compared with just $77.8 million in American investment registered over the same period.

China, by far Cambodia’s biggest foreign investor, has become such a vital partner for Cambodia, particularly for politicians and officials who have business ties with Chinese companies, that authorities here have sometimes taken extraordinary steps to protect Chinese interests. When workers at three garment factories operated by companies from China and Taiwan in the city of Bavet staged a protest in February to press for higher pay, the local governor, furious at the disruption, turned up with a gun and shot into the crowd, according to witnesses. Three female workers were wounded. The governor lost his job but has not been jailed. Garment-making is Cambodia’s biggest industry, employing about 300,000 people.

Two months later, an environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was shot to death, apparently by military police, during a visit to the Cardamom mountain region to collect evidence that a Chinese dam project — one of six new hydropower projects undertaken here by China— had opened the way to a rash of illegal logging.

Cambodia has also worked hard within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to protect China’s diplomatic interests, particularly in relation to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Outrage over a lake

Of all the Cambodian controversies involving China, however, none has stirred as much public outrage as the development of Boeung Kak Lake, which had been one of Phnom Penh’s most cherished urban landmarks. Though badly polluted after decades of neglect, it still attracted throngs of people to its waterfront pathways, cafes and guesthouses.

Today, the area is an eyesore — and an emblem of the damage wrought by Cambodia’s China-
assisted dash for development. “The policy of the government is to cut poverty, but all these evictions only make people homeless and poor,” said Pung Chhiv Kek of Licadho.

Under the terms of a 99-year lease granted in Feb 2007 by Phnom Penh Municipality, a Cambodian company called Shukaku gained the right to turn the lake and a swath of surrounding land into a new residential and business district. Shukaku agreed to pay $79 million for 328 acres of prime real estate, far less than the market value of such a large piece of land in the center of the capital.

The company is controlled by Lao Meng Khin, a wealthy senator for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and a close ally of Cambodia’s long-serving leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen. Shukaku executives declined to be interviewed. Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Boeung Kak Lake had been a smelly health hazard and needed to be turned into “a developed place.”

After two false starts with Chinese companies, Shukaku’s effort now has the backing of Inner Mongolia Ordos Hong Jun Investment Corp., a joint venture between two Chinese entities.

While workers moved in to drain the lake and pump in sand in 2008, armed police stood guard as most of the area’s more than 4,000 families — who were offered either land outside the city or modest cash payments — were ordered to leave. But hundreds of other residents, including Tep Vanny, refused to budge and began organizing protests. They also started writing letters to the Chinese Embassy. All went unanswered. But, in an interview with a state-owned Chinese newspaper, the embassy’s commercial attache, Jin Yuan, defended Chinese investors, saying they had played no role in evictions, which he said were solely the work of local authorities.

After repeated clashes between residents and police, the World Bank announced in August 2011 that it would suspend lending to Cambodia until authorities halted the evictions and agreed to fair compensation. Stung by the mounting criticism, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered that part of the area leased to Shukaku be registered as the property of more than 700 families still living in the area. But protests continued, and authorities cracked down hard. In May of this year, Tep Vanny and a dozen other women were arrested during a rally near a cluster of demolished homes and sentenced to 21 / 2 years in prison for “illegally occupying public land.”

The stiff sentences drew widespread condemnation and a plea for the women’s release from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Cambodia’s Appeal Court overturned the jail sentences. The crackdown, however, has since resumed, with two anti-eviction activists arrested early this month.

The future of the project, meanwhile, is mired in uncertainty. A high concrete wall has been erected around the sand-filled lake, but there is no sign of construction work. The sand is too soft to build on and could take up to a decade to settle sufficiently. Residents complain that draining of the lake has caused flooding during the rainy season and led to sewage leaking. Liu Xueming, an official with Ordos Hong Jun Investment in Phnom Penh, said he couldn’t discuss plans for the vanished lake. “This project is a little bit sensitive,” he said.

Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.