Surrealpolitik: The Experience of Chinese Experts in Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979

Andrew Mertha, Cornell University
Detail of Chinese Schematic for the Kampong Som Refinery, Feb. 1977. Source: Cambodian National Archives.
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The literature on Chinese assistance to Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979), has tended to be divided into two approaches. The first rests on 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. This approach suggests that Chinese experts in Democratic Kampuchea were akin to revolutionary comrades-in-arms who shared an ideological affinity as they worked alongside their Cambodian counterparts. The second approach focuses on a state-to-state level of analysis in which the human element is ignored altogether. In this article, by contrast, the author argues that the Chinese experience in Democratic Kampuchea was structured and constrained by the contradiction of technical imperatives in a milieu of deadly political infighting, as well as by the many institutional shortcomings on both the Cambodian and the Chinese sides. The author uses the petroleum refinery project at Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) to illustrate his argument.