Ros Sitha was asleep with dozens of other construction workers on the unfinished second floor of the hotel they were building in the heart of Sihanoukville, a booming Cambodian coastal city. The Chinese owners had let the workers live on site – common practice in a city where nearly every block is under redevelopment.
Shortly before dawn, the 40-year-old was jolted awake by a loud crack from the floors above, then another.
Seconds later, the structure gave way, toppling to one side and trapping more than 50 workers beneath hunks of concrete and twisted metal.
As Beijing expands its economic influence overseas, it has found few partners more willing than Cambodia’s authoritarian President Hun Sen, who has ushered in Chinese state-owned companies to build roads, bridges, hydroelectric plants, industrial estates and a port.
Cambodia’s strategic location, at the doorstep of the South China Sea, makes it a geopolitical prize, and Beijing’s support – backed by billions of dollars in loans – has helped Hun Sen weather US criticism of crackdowns against opposition parties, civil society groups and independent media that have made Cambodia effectively a one-party state.
“From the Chinese perspective, Cambodia is a wonderland of rapid development deals,” said Bradley J. Murg, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at Seattle Pacific University. “But Cambodians fear they’re becoming a dumping ground.”
Nowhere in Cambodia is the Chinese presence more visible than in Sihanoukville, a city of 300,000 that locals say has become a de facto colony of Beijing.
A decade ago, the only foreigners in the city were Western backpackers seeking bamboo huts, US$1 meals and cheap marijuana on empty stretches of sand. Now Sihanoukville is a construction site where jackhammers thunder from nearly every corner.
Provincial officials say Chinese nationals own 90 per cent of businesses, including more than 150 hotels, hundreds of restaurants, scores of massage parlours and karaoke clubs and four dozen casinos.
Beside the metal detectors at one gambling hall entrance, a sign stated: No Cambodians allowed.
“It feels like a Chinese town, not a Cambodian town,” said Teng Soda, a 35-year-old who rented her house in central Sihanoukville last year to a Chinese investor and moved with her husband and two children to the city’s outskirts.
Cambodian officials speak glowingly of “a city of miracles.” But she said that runaway development has made life miserable for its original inhabitants. Cranes tower above muddy, potholed streets. Rolls-Royce sedans park next to piles of burning trash. Power goes out regularly.
Ros Sitha learned about Sihanoukville last year from some young men near his home in Krouch, a village of coconut palms and rice fields seven hours away on the banks of the Mekong River.
He was looking to repay the US$2,000 he had borrowed to replace his family’s bamboo hut with a concrete house, and a construction job that paid US$13 or US$14 a day sounded like a good way to do it. So he boarded a bus to the coast hoping he would save enough to return home in six months.
When he arrived in Sihanoukville in March, he said, it “felt like a foreign country.”
He started work immediately, with no training or safety equipment, hauling sacks of cement.
Every few days, trucks deposited new unskilled labourers from the countryside, some of whom appeared to be teenagers. Children sometimes came along, wandering amid the exposed rebar and loose bricks while their parents worked eight- to 10-hour shifts.
Human rights groups say the Chinese-fuelled boom has created a market for underage workers, some as young as 13. Accidents occur almost daily but are rarely reported, said Sok In, president of a trade union representing construction workers.
The construction process in Sihanoukville is “build first, license later,” according to a recent World Bank report, and local authorities have seemed powerless to stop even major violations.
This spring, two Chinese-owned hotels defied multiple city orders to shut down after they were found to have been disgorging raw sewage onto beaches in Sihanoukville. Police and court officials eventually closed one hotel, but environmental groups say the other has continued to operate.
Activists said the developer of the hotel where Ros Sitha worked had twice been ordered to stop work due to a lack of permits, most recently in March. Both times, labourers said, work resumed after a few days with no apparent changes.
At the end of each afternoon, when their shifts ended, the workers would bond over meals of vegetables and rice cooked on gas stoves on the second story where many slept on the bare concrete. On Sundays, their lone day off, some ventured into the Chinese-owned electronics shops to gawk at the latest gadgets.
In one of those shops, Ros Sitha bought his first smartphone, then had a friend help him to open a Facebook account so his family could send him photos from Krouch. It helped get him through the hours after the collapse.
Wedged between two masses and barely able to move, he waited 60 hours to be rescued. His phone could not get a signal, but he kept his spirits up by scrolling through photos of his children, watching again and again a clip of his eight-year-old daughter reciting a poem back in their village.
As rescue teams dug bodies out and survivors convalesced in the nearby provincial hospital, it seemed Cambodia might finally slow Chinese development.
Authorities arrested seven men, including the building owner and four other Chinese nationals, and accused them of involuntary manslaughter and other charges that carry a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. The Chinese embassy issued a statement saying it was saddened by the incident and supported “a thorough investigation of the accident.”
Lawyers for the accused could not be reached for comment.
In a visit to the disaster site, Hun Sen vowed to stop illegal construction but defended China, saying: “If there were no Chinese investors, let me ask you, would we have tall buildings like this?”
Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College and authority on Cambodia, said Hun Sen was determined to preserve his relationship with Beijing.
“There’s too much money involved,” Ear said. “It seems the modus operandi is, ‘Nothing to see here, move along.’”
At one Chinese-owned restaurant where construction was halted, several workers still milled about on a recent afternoon, as if on lunch break. A sign plastered outside the five-storey building cited the “poor quality” of the steel frame and missing licences, construction permits, environmental assessments and fire prevention information.
Pav Mom, a 28-year-old migrant worker living at the site, said the developer had asked her to stick around because he was confident construction would resume.
“I don’t really feel safe,” she said. “But where am I going to go?”
The government and private donors paid families of those who died in the collapse US$70,000 each. One of the youngest victims was Chon Thean, an 18-year-old from a village near Krouch, who had worked in construction in Sihanoukville and other cities since he was 14. He had dropped out of school to support his family, including a father who was partially blind.
“It wasn’t legal but we had no choice,” said his father, Khum Then, 43. “We didn’t have any idea about what is happening in Sihanoukville – all we know is there are jobs.”
Ros Sitha spent three days in hospital recovering from dehydration and scrapes to his arm, then returned to Krouch. His wife and daughter pleaded with him not to take another job away from the village. He and other survivors had each received US$30,000 in compensation, and he thought of using the money to open a shop. Despite his ordeal, he harboured little resentment.
“The Chinese helped me earn some money for my family,” he said. “So if someone else told me they were thinking of working in Sihanoukville, I wouldn’t say anything. It’s their choice.”