When Cambodia’s post and communications and health ministries initiated in February a so-called “Stop Covid-19” QR code contact tracing app system to prevent the spread of the lethal virus, rights groups immediately rang the alarm.

In an April 6 report, US rights lobby group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the system raises serious privacy concerns, is overly intrusive, and that its stepped-up surveillance of the Cambodian population would ultimately put “government critics and activists at greater risk.”

However, what HRW didn’t foresee was the China factor. Shortly after the official announcement of the “Stop Covid-19” app’s launch, Wang Wentian, the Chinese ambassador to Phnom Penh, met with Cambodian officials and requested access to the personal data collected via the new system, according to sources familiar with the request.   

The Chinese envoy reportedly said the data was needed to help Beijing monitor people traveling between the two countries, though China currently maintains strict quarantine measures for incoming travelers and the two sides do not share a common border.

In exchange for access to the app’s data, Wang and other officials offered to help the Cambodian Ministry of Post and Telecommunications upgrade its current QR system with state-of-the-art digital technology from Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the same sources said.

While Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen may be eager to track down and monitor opponents to his increasingly authoritarian Beijing-backed regime, the Chinese have other particularistic motives for wanting to monitor and track Cambodians’ and foreign residents’ movements.

China wants access to Cambodia’s Stop Covid–19 contact tracing app’s data. Picture: Facebook

Cambodia, situated on the southern flank of the contested South China Sea, is emerging as a key node in China’s strategic push into Southeast Asia.  The Wall Street Journal, quoting “US and allied officials familiar with the matter”, first reported in July 2019 that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement that grants the Chinese military access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base near the port city of Sihanoukville for 30 years “with automatic renewals every 10 years after that.”

Three days after the Wall Street Journal published its allegations, Cambodian Ministry of National Defense spokesman Chhum Socheat dismissed the report, calling it “fake news” and foreign propaganda that aimed to “sow discord in the region.”

Since 2010, the base had been the site of annual joint US-Cambodian training and naval exercises, but those bilateral maneuvers were canceled in 2017 and soon thereafter replaced with joint Chinese exercises.

Ream Naval Base facilities built with US assistance have recently been demolished and are reportedly being replaced by new, China-funded structures. That’s raising speculation that Beijing has maritime surveillance, monitoring and basing ambitions for the facility.

Chinese investment has also transformed the once-sleepy port city of Sihanoukville into a modern metropolis with flashing neon lights, skyscrapers, shopping centers and, until Covid-19 hit the region and a partial ban on gambling was introduced in August 2019, casinos that attracted hordes of Chinese punters.

Permanent and temporary Chinese immigrants may today make up as much as a fifth of the city’s population, with some suggesting the percentage could be much higher. Surrounding the city are Chinese-built power plants while offshore Chinese companies are engaged in oil exploration and extraction in the Gulf of Thailand.

That all gives China big intrusive incentive to monitor and track Cambodians’ movements. According to HRW’s report, people entering a certain establishment receive a text message on their phones with a six-digit code, which they need to enter into their phones to be granted entry.

In this way, a digital log is created that identifies and follows app users’ location, behavior and associations, all of which, HRW argues, would “infringe on the right to privacy, adding to the government’s existing intrusive practices.”

A woman checks her temperature at a screening point before entering the Central Market in Phnom Penh on May 24, 2021. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Hun Sen, Southeast Asia’s longest-serving prime minister, has held the position since 1985  -although he briefly shared the premiership with Prince Norodom Ranariddh from 1993-1997 – has always been a harsh authoritarian.

But those anti-democratic tendencies have grown since his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 parliamentary seats at a 2018 election that the US and other outside observers panned as unfair and unfree without credible opposition options on the ballot.

China is Cambodia’s closest foreign ally and largest single investor, and regularly shields Hun Sen from Western condemnation and the threat of sanctions. From 2016 to 2019, before Covid-19 slowed down all economic activity in the region, Cambodia attracted about US$7.9 billion worth of Chinese investment, or 35% of total investment amounting to $22.5 billion over the period.

Those figures are small compared to what can be observed in Thailand and other wealthier neighbors, but they underscore how reliant Cambodia is on China for its economic and investment growth.

It thus follows that Cambodia is hardly in a position to resist Chinese pressure — unlike, for instance, Thailand, where China last year made a similar request for access to its “Thai Chana” and “Mor Chana” contact tracing apps, but the Thais managed to evade through what sources familiar with the situation said was “skillful diplomacy.”

China’s security agencies asked for access to the information-gathering platforms developed to track and isolate Covid-19 carriers under the pretext of monitoring tourists traveling between the two countries.

The Chinese agencies also reportedly asked for access to the personal data of not only Thai citizens, but also foreign residents in the country and told Thai authorities that any decision to allow Chinese tourists to resume travel to the kingdom would be contingent on sharing Thai Chana and Mor Chana information.

Beijing has the leverage to get what it wants. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, 11 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, more than any other nationality of the total 39.8 million who visited that year. Tourism represents nearly 20% of Thai gross domestic product and has been especially hard-hit by the pandemic.  

The Thais responded that it would be too difficult to gather all that information in a single application as the details were being stored in many different databases and the issue died down, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Cambodia is even more dependent on Chinese tourists, who accounted for 2 million out of the 5.29 million who visited the country in 2019. Tourism represented a whopping 32.7% of Cambodia’s GDP that year but has nearly entirely dried up since the pandemic.

(COMBO) This combination photo created on March 5, 2020 shows tourists visiting Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap province on March 16, 2019 (top) and on March 5, 2020. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

At the same time, Cambodia’s vulnerability and strategic location put it high on China’s influence agenda and the targets for Chinese surveillance would likely be civilians working in sensitive sectors or in the government and armed forces.

Sources say sensitive personal information data could be used for identifying intelligence agents and assets and could be used if necessary as a basis for blackmail and bribery, or both. Cambodia’s corrupt political culture leaves it highly vulnerable to such external pressures.

In 2019, Transparency International (TI) ranked Cambodia 162 out of 180 global countries, scoring 20 out of 100 in the corruption watchdog’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and rating the country as “highly corrupted.”

It was the lowest score among Southeast Asian countries and in the entire Asia-Pacific region second only to hermetic North Korea and war-ripped Afghanistan. In 2020, Cambodia scored a 21 on the CPI, a meager one-point improvement.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan slammed the TI report in February this year, saying it “did not reflect the actual situation in Cambodia.”

That statement was contradicted by Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who was quoted in the February 1 issue of the Khmer Times as saying: “Corruption is unfortunately rampant across Cambodia, permeating the judiciary, land administration, public services and the police, just to name a few. And taking the form of bribery, political favoritism, nepotism and exploitation for personal gains.”

Cambodia’s weak and corrupt institutions thus remain highly susceptible to Chinese coercion and demands for access to its official databases. And Beijing’s push for access to the Covid-19 tracking app is only the latest of its pandemic era attempts to solidify its influence in the disease-devastated region.

HRW says that “the United Nations in Cambodia should jointly call out the government’s failure to abide by international human rights law in its Covid-19 response.” But with Beijing’s strategic interests at stake, Hun Sen firmly entrenched in power and Beijing his main benefactor, those calls for more rights and less surveillance will fall on deaf ears.