PHNOM PENH — Speaking over the sounds of a noisy classroom, Tep Raska uses his not-very-standard Mandarin to tel me why he came to this particular school. “I’ d like to do business in trading glass,” says Raska.

Though an ethnic Khmer, his parents sent him to study at the Toun Fa Chinese School, a private Chinese-language school based in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Toun Fa has been attracting more and more local Khmer students, alongside the still dominant ethnic Chinese pupils. Of its 16,000 students, aged from five to 17, some 5% are now Khmers, up from 2-3% a decade ago.

Already the biggest Chinese-language school in Southeast Asia, Toun Fa is still expanding. A new branch was opened in 1995, and additional buildings have been added, including one three months ago thanks to the donations of its alumni and the Chinese embassy in Cambodia.

China’s increasing economic strength and importance are the reasons why Chinese schools have been growing in Cambodia, explains Li Minghui, Tuan Fa’s President. “It’s easier to find work and, in particular, high-end work in areas such as engineering and banking if one masters Chinese," says Li.

Many of Cambodia’s leading investors are from the Chinese diaspora, whether they are from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Malaysia. "And they all speak Chinese,” says Li.

The Cambodian government has begun promoting Chinese learning. According to various estimates, though it makes up less than 5% of Cambodia’s population of some 15 million, the Chinese-speaking community is very influential both economically and politically in the country.

On the bandwagon 

China is Cambodia’s leading source of investment, accounting for some 20% of the $40 billion of investment projects ratified by the Cambodian government between 1994 and 2011. Meanwhile mainland China is also one of the country’s most important trading partners. Since 2000, China’s exports to Cambodia have increased 15-fold. The Chinese government has also been providing large amounts of foreign aid to its southeastern neighbor, including a governmental complex called the “Friendship Building” completed in 2010.

In Phnom Penh — Photo: David Longstreath/ZUMA

In foreign affairs as well, Cambodia is also following the Chinese lead, in accordance with the Asian power's growing clout. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' summit held in Phnom Penh in 2012, for the first time in ASEAN’s history, it failed to release a joint communiqué. Most observers noted that as the South China Sea issue was escalating at the time, the host Cambodian government was thought to not want to add the words “deeply concerned” over the situation so as not to offend Beijing.

International relations experts in Phnom Penh are optimistic about the future of China-Cambodia relations. Even if the emerging opposition party takes office one day, the Chinese economy will remain decisive for the country, and it will also need to use China’s weight to contain its neighbor Vietnam.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly stated that China is Cambodia’s “most trusted friend.”

The expansion of the Toun Fa Chinese School is thus a reflection of Cambodia’s broader political and economic direction. Established by Chinese emigrants from Chiu Chow in 1915, the school just celebrated its 100th anniversary.

There was a period in the last century when Toun Fa was regarded as the country’s top elite institution. However, the 1970 military coup led by Lon Nol led to the complete closure of all Chinese language schools. This policy continued during the following period of Cambodia’s civil war. “We despaired,” school head Li recalled of the period when most Chinese people were forced to move into the rural areas. 

It was not until 22 years later that Cambodia ended its long period of war and instability, and eventually some 80 Chinese schools were resurrected. Due to economic difficulties there are currently only around 50 schools left.

Some note that the long disruption of Chinese education has dragged down the language skills of ethnic Chinese. But now, for pragmatic new reasons, things are changing again, says Li: “I am pleased to be able to say that Chinese language teaching is back to stay.”