Why did China support the Khmer Rouge?

Why did China support the Khmer Rouge? This is a question to this day still clouded in immense mystery. The relationship between China and the Khmer Rouge, is also much like the relationship between the USA and the Khmer Rouge subject to historical revisionism.

To read about the war of words between the USA and China click here.

To read about if the USA supported the Khmer Rouge click here.

The classic answer why China supported the Khmer Rouge is usually stated that it was simply the result of geopolitics. The Chinese wanted to counter Sino-Vietnamese domination in the region and that it was essentially an escalation of the Sino-Soviet split. This is not only a drastic simplification of things, but ignores many facets, such as how Chinese reasons changed from the Mao to Deng eras.

In this article we will look at the level of support China gave the Communist Part of Kampuchea, how much influence the Chinese had over the Khmer Rouge, and indeed the question “why did the China support the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge and Maoism

Communism in Cambodia initially started out as part of the wider Indochinese Communist Party which was formed in 1930. The party was disbanded in 1945, which the Cambodians and Laotians being asked to form their own parties.

Following the independence of North Vietnam in 1954 many in the Cambodian left felt betrayed by the lack of support from the Vietnamese, something which would later play an important role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1951 the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party was formed as the first fully indigenous communist party in Cambodia. At the outset it was essentially a pre-Soviet and pro-Vietnamese movement. In 1955 the KPRP formed the subsidiary party the “Peoples Party” to take part in elections, which it performed poorly in.

During the 1950’s many of the Cambodian left were being radicalized in Paris, from where they formed the Khmer Students Association among other groups.

To read more about the Khmer Students association click here.

After this group returned to Cambodia many were unhappy about the party collaborating with the Sihanouk regime, as well as the overall inactivity of the party. After many party members,such as Solath Sar were forced underground this would come to a head in 1960.

The meeting of 1960

From 28–30 September 1960, twenty-one leaders of the KPRP held a secret congress in a room of the Phnom Penh train station. At the time they were essentially two factions to the party, rural and urban. A majority at the meeting were from the rural/Maoist faction.

Little is known about the meeting due to the fact that both pro and anti Vietnamese factions of the Khmer left essentially rewrote their history based on this meeting. What we do know is that whether to collaborate with Sihanouk was discussed and that the rural faction won.

Tou Samouth was elected leader of the party, with Nuon Chea as his deputy and supposed heir to the throne. Pol Pot and Ieng Sery were also electedd the central committee of the party. The party was also renamed into the Workers Party of Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge would later disavow any lineage to the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party, whilst the KPRP (who wold later become the CPP), would disavow any lineage to the Workers Party of Kampuchea.

Pol Pot becomes leader of the Workers Party of Kampuchea

In 1962 Tou Smooth was killed, supposedly by government forces. Some have argued that he was killed by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea as part of a party coup, but this has never been confirmed. What we do know is that Nuon Chea should have become leader of the party, but stood aside so that the “intellectual” Pol Pot would become leader.

Why did China support the Khmer Rouge

To read about who the real leader of the Khmer Rouge was click here.

The party was now firmly in the control of the Paris Clique, who openly admired China and Maoism. This would lead to them to start an open insurgency from their base in Ratanakiri and be labeled by Sihanouk as the “Khmer Rouge” a moniker that was to stick with the group.

The Communist insurgency in Cambodia and the Sino-Soviet split

Despite the Sino-Soviet split there was almost a level of détente when it came to South-East Asia. Both the Soviets and the Chinese jostled for influence, but both also supported the communists of both countries. Pol Pot and the Workers Party of Kampuchea were increasingly becoming more Maoist, whilst the Vietnamese were very much supported by the Soviet Union. This though did not stop them collaborating together. To further complicate things though Sihanouk was also.  tacitly giving support, or at least turning a blind eye to the Viet Cong. This whilst being a trusted friend and ally of China.

Was Pol Pot a Maoist?

Pol Pot was to first visit China and meet Mao in 1965. We know that Pol Pot was keen admirer of Mao and Maoism, particularly policies scubas the Great Leap Forward, which Cambodia would implement its own version of, and the Cultural Revolution. It should also be noted that Chairman Mao as part of the Sino-Soviet split saw himself as the true leader of world socialism. Pol Pot and the Workers Party of Kampuchea were thus seen as his proteges.

The policy of China was the policy of Mao

Following he Sino-Soviet split only tiny Albania had sided with the Chinese, and whilst there were various Maoist insurgencies throughout he world, Mao had from tormented world revolution.

It should be remembered that the Cultural Revolution was also coming towards an end in the early 1970’s, and again had essentially been a failure. Therefore China’s support for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was linked much less to elements related to the geopolitics, or the Sino-Soviet split, but more to the ideological aims of Chairman Mao. Maoism needed a victory and Mao saw that ideological victory as the Khmer Rouge.

Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge from 1970-75

China were instrumental in forming the alliance between Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge known as the GRUNK, which on the face of it at least was a Royalist collation government and insurgency. China though got to support both of its allies in Cambodia. The Soviets and the Vietnamese also supported the Khmerr Rouge insurgency, at this time as least still seeing them as allies in global proletarian struggle.

It is estimated that Chinese assistance to the Khmer Rouge during this period amounted to almost $316 million dollars.

The Khmer Rouge come to power

The Khmer Rouge swept into power in April of 1975, almost immediately evacuating the cities. Sihanouk was named as head of state and the Khmer Rouge, with Chinese support began creating the institutions that would form Democratic Kampuchea.

The evacuation of the cities was done in order to achieve the Maoist inspired Super Great Leap Forward. The policy that was affectively the cause of the Killing Fields and the deaths of so many in Democratic Kampuchea.

Initially relations between Democratic Kampuchea, Vietnam and the Soviet Union were extremely warm, but his was to turn sour very quickly. Battle lines were quickly being drawn though, with Democratic Kampuchea being in the Chinese camp, and Vietnam, fearful of its northern neighbor siding with the USSR.

Chairman Mao pledged 1 billion in economic and military aid to Democratic Kampuchea, and feeling they had an unwavering ally the Khmer Rouge became increasingly confrontational with Vietnam.

The death of Chairman Mao and the Khmer Rouge

Chairman Mao died in September of 1976 and this was to have a profound affect on relations between the countries. It had assumed in Democratic Kampuchea and the wider world that even after the death of Mao it would still be “business as usual”, but new leader Huo Guofeng had the gang of four arrested. He did though also promote the “two whatever’s” policy. That is whatever Mao said, or did was right. This though did not last long and China was about to undergo immense changes.

Democratic Kampuchea entered a period of morning and Pol Pot was almost immediately secretly flown to Beijing. Here the Chinese assured Pol Pot of their continued alliance, more aid was promised and the Chinese were the only country allowed to retain their former embassy, with all other nations forced to move to a specific diplomatic compound. Indeed the Chinese were the only people still allowed a relative freedom of movement in the country. 

At this point is clear that the Chinese saw Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea as they pawns, but Pol Pot saw things very differently.

Much as Mao had seen himself as the heir to world socialism after the death of Stalin, Pol Pot saw himself as the heir to world revolution. He felt that other counties such as Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia should follow the Khmer Rouge model. Indeed Thai communist were even allowed to set up bases along the border and in the territory of Democratic Kampuchea.

Pol Pot also courted maverick leaders of  the socialist world. They already enjoyed good relations with North Korea and in 1978  Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu became the second head of state to visit the country.  

Pol Pot and Democratic Kampuchea felt unbeatable. They were now visible on the global stage and in their mind had a nuclear armed superpower prepared to back them to the hilt, but times were changing quickly in China.

Deng and the Khmer Rouge

China was now under the control of the reformist Deng Xiaoping, and whilst they still feared Soviet and Vietnamese dominance in the region were no longer bound by strict ideological ties to Maoism. They were also facing global condemnation for their continued support of the Khmerr Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge feeling increasingly powerful began incursions into Vietnam, which would lead to the Kampuchean-Vietnam war and the fall of the regime. The Khmer Rouge asked and indeed expected military support from the Chinese. The Chinese countered that they should seek negotiations with the Vietnamese. It is generally believed that the Vietnamese and indeed the Soviets would have rather negotiated than invaded, but Khmer Rouge arrogance was now at its peak.

To read about the Cambodian – Vietnamese war click here.

The Chinese had essentially created a monster that they could not control the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge and now China was faced with exactly what it had feared Vietnamese and Soviet dominance in the region. As a result China launched a punitive attack against the Vietnamese, which drew away Vietnamese forces from Cambodia and allowed the Khmer Rouge to be able to retreat and regroup as fighting force.

To read about the Sino-Vietnamese War click here.

Why did China support the Khmer Rouge after they had lost power?

Whilst the Chinese no longer ideologically supported the Khmer Rouge they were left with an unacceptable geopolitical position due to the previous support that Mao had provided. They did not want Soviet and Vietnamese dominate in the region and they almost had to “double down” with their support of the Khmer Rouge.

They were of course not the only country to fear Soviet domination of the region, and it is from thus point that the USA became overt  supporters of the Khmer Rouge.

With Chinese persuasion Sihanouk again aligned with the Khmer Rouge and the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea was formed. Funded armed and trained by both China, the USA and others.

To read more about the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea click here.

So, why did China support the Khmer rouge still? Quite simply as a bulwark against the USSR and Vietnam and in league with the west as part of cold war politics.

China finally ends support for the Khmer Rouge

It misestimated that China were still training and arming the Khmer Rouge until the early 1990’s, but with the end of the Cold War, normalization of relations with Vietnam and peace being achieved in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge had simply become an embarrassment to China.

Pol Pot and his followers retreated to the areas that still controlled and formed the last Khmer Rouge state, until his death in 1998, dissolution of the state and the final capture of Ta Mok.

Cambodia and China today

There is obvious controversy about the role of China and its support for the Khmer Rouge. There is though to be fair equal controversy surrounding the role of the USA and other western countries in their support of Pol Pot.

Ironically after the Vietnamese left and the CPP cemented power in Cambodia ties between the countries are now arguable tighter than they were even at the height of the love affair between Pol Pot and Mao..

China see’s a strategic ally in the region, whilst Cambodia seeks an economic role model as well as a financial backer in its industrialization.  In many respects not all that different from the friendship of the 1970’s. History truly does have a strange way of repeating itself.