China's Role in the Cambodian People's Party's Quest for Legitimacy.

AuthorLuo, Jing Jing

To stay in power, political regimes need to acquire legitimacy and demonstrate their right to rule. Every political order must have its own "legitimacy idea". (1) The legitimacy idea is dynamic, subject to changing socio-economic and political conditions and therefore "in need of constant cultivation". (2) Through legitimation, a regime aims to obtain "active consent, compliance with the rules, passive obedience, or more toleration within the population". (3) Based on a Weberian understanding of legitimacy, Muthiah Alagappa contends that legitimacy has four constituent elements: the normative (shared norms and values); the procedural (the adherence to established rules); the performance (the proper and effective use of state power); and the consensual (public acceptance of state authority). In many developing countries, due to the weaknesses of political institutions and contestations of norms and values, procedural elements are less significant for political legitimation. Instead, the incumbent governments of such countries rely heavily on the performance-based aspect of political legitimacy. (4) Performance legitimacy involves a "quid pro quo for the fulfillment of demands", (5) in which the public provides "specific support" to the regime based on the latter's ability to deliver public goods and services as well as economic growth. In other words, "[t]he better [a regime] performs economically, socially, and in terms of public order, the more legitimate it is in the eyes of the ruled". (6) In regimes where democratic procedure is either limited or absent, performance legitimacy is especially salient for incumbent governments as they are asking their citizens to forgo civil and political liberties in return for stability and economic growth. (7) Without performance legitimacy, regimes--both democratic and authoritarian--may face citizens' non-compliance in the form of political resistance, including popular uprisings or even rebellions. (8)

Many authoritarian regimes employ three mutually reinforcing pillars to retain their power: legitimation, repression and co-optation. (9) Repression involves the use of varying levels of violence to silence and sideline political opponents, while co-optation refers to the inclusion of the military and business elite into the ruling coalition through formal and informal institutional mechanisms (see the article by Neil Loughlin in this special issue). Such inclusion prevents the military and business elite from using their resources to obstruct the regime. Because of the high costs associated with repression and co-optation, authoritarian regimes need to augment them with legitimation to acquire and maintain their power. Although some polities are capable of maintaining this reinforcing process by using available domestic resources, it is rare. In many cases, the reinforcing process requires resources provided by outside powers. (10) These resources include aid, trade, investment or a combination thereof.

Since gaining power in 1979 following Vietnam's military intervention in Cambodia, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), formerly known as the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRK), has been experiencing an ongoing legitimacy deficit. First, the PRK/CPP government faced resistance from other Khmer factions which accused it of being a "Vietnamese puppet". (11) Following the United Nations-backed international intervention in Cambodia in 1991-93, the CPP's legitimacy has been contested. In opposition to the CPP, Royalists represented by the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) have sought to project the monarchy as the true embodiment of the Khmer nation, while democrats represented by Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party--which in 2012 merged to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)--have promoted the idea that democracy ensures Cambodia's "national preservation" from the perceived threat posed by Vietnam and the CPP's corrupt authoritarianism. (12) Facing varying challenges to its legitimacy, the CPP and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, have employed various tactics to legitimize their rule. Kimly Ngoun identifies Hun Sen's six modes of legitimation: national saviour, competent leader, electoral victor, man of merit, defender of national heritage and Facebook celebrity. According to Ngoun, the performance-based theme highlighting Hun Sen's competence has been the most effective mode of legitimation for Hun Sen to garner popular support. (13)

As Ngoun does not detail the sources and impact of Prime Minister Hun Sen's and the CPP's performance-based legitimacy, this article attempts to fill the gap. Although it examines the endogenous sources of performance-based legitimation in brief, its central focus is on China's multi-faceted investment, aid and trade relations with Cambodia. In particular, the article examines the impact of China's role in the CPP's and Hun Sen's quest for performance-based legitimacy. Since the 2000s, Sino-Cambodian relations have drawn very close, reaching the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2010. Indicators in key areas reflect the closer ties. China's economic aid to Cambodia increased from US$2.61 million in 2000 to US$100.2 million in 2010, and US$420.56 million in 2020. (14) Bilateral trade has also expanded exponentially, from US$223.55 million in 2000 to US$1.44 billion in 2010 and US$9.3 billion in 2019. (15) Sino-Cambodian economic ties are expected to strengthen further following the signing of the Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement in 2020. (10)

This article draws on the authors' longitudinal observations of Cambodian politics and China's engagement with Cambodia, secondary sources in Chinese, Khmer and English, and interviews conducted in Cambodia from 2018 to 2020 with multiple stakeholders, including Chinese and Cambodian officials, investors and ordinary Cambodians. Given the non-transparent nature of China's engagement, the article will highlight some widely publicized as well as under-reported Chinese investment projects to gauge their implications for the CPP's quest for legitimacy.

In the following section, we analyse the CPP's methods of performance-based legitimation from the early 1990s to 2017 in order to delineate our claim that performance has always been a component of the CPP's legitimation strategy. In the third section, we discuss how China's foreign aid, as well as Chinese state and private investments, have induced economic growth and improved the provision of public services in Cambodia, allowing the CPP to burnish its performance-based legitimacy. In the fourth section, we examine in detail investment from China in Sihanoukville, which has been cited as "embodying the worst excess of Chinese investment". (17) This leads to the fifth section, where we assess the lessons of Sihanoukville and how Chinese engagement in Cambodia has overall enhanced the CPP's legitimacy despite some negative effects.

The CPP's Patronage-based Performance Legitimacy

Despite their agreement to form a coalition government after the UN-sponsored elections in 1993, Co-Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh both continued to plot for political domination. To preempt the emergence of a coalition between FUNCINPEC and the Khmer Rouge faction based at Along Veng, Hun Sen launched a military coup against Co-Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh in June 1997. The coup, and the ensuing violence leading up to the 1998 elections, undermined the CPP's domestic and international legitimacy. Facing Western disapprobation in the form of economic and diplomatic sanctions, the CPP agreed to hold an election with the participation of its former foes--FUNCINPEC, the SRP and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP). Despite reports of violence and intimidation, the CPP captured only 41.4 per cent of the total ballots, while FUNCINPEC and SRP won the remaining votes. (18) As its internal and international legitimacy was in question, the CPP scaled up Prime Minister Hun Sen's patronage-based development projects which were modelled after a pilot project in Kraingyov, Kandal Province, in the mid-1990s. (19) This patronage-based legitimation involved Hun Sen styling himself as the nation's benefactor (suboroschun) dedicated to the "culture of sharing", in which the rich and the powerful share their resources with the poor in a patron-client relationship. (20)

In his role as the paramount patron of the Cambodian neo-patrimonial system--characterized by the coexistence of formal political institutions with informal patron-client networks--Hun Sen has sponsored large and highly visible infrastructure projects such as schools, roads and inter-district irrigation networks. Furthermore, the CPP has formed party working groups (PWGs) composed of central government officials who are also party members. The PWGs are assigned to improve the livelihoods of local communities through material handouts and infrastructural development projects. In the words of one Oknha (business tycoons who make contributions to national development), the PWGs are a mechanism to "help the people meet their urgent needs, and to a certain extent eliminate their resentment and dissatisfaction with the ruling party". (21) Interestingly, CPP development funds have been able to reach local communities regularly and some areas have received funding that were double the amount provided by the state. (22) Although foreign aid constituted a significant portion of this funding, the rest originated from the resources that the prime minister mobilized from his political and economic clients. (23) In short, while this pillar of legitimation is neo-patrimonial and traditional in nature, it is undoubtedly performance-based in intent.

The CPP's patronage-based politics have been accompanied by continuous economic growth since the 2000s, which has led to tangible...

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