At the culminating event of the Middlebury chapter of Project Pengyou’s “Pengyou Week,” the organization invited Professor Andrew Mertha, a specialist in Chinese and Cambodian politics at Cornell University, to talk about China’s historical support of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The Southeast Asian country of Cambodia is often left out of discussions related to U.S.-China relations, and Project Pengyou aims to change that dynamic on campus.
Project Pengyou is a relatively new organization to Middlebury’s campus, founded by Ngor Luong ’19 last year. Its mission is to create a cohort of U.S.-China bridge builders and provide a platform for international Chinese students, Chinese Americans and any students interested in discussing U.S.-China relations. The organization hosts various events, panels and discussions throughout the year; however, its biggest event was an internationally recognized Pengyou Day, which took place on November 16. “Pengyou” means “friend” in Chinese, and the organization hosted events throughout the whole week promoting friendship and cooperation between the two countries. These events included a panel sponsored by the Center for Careers and Internships on job and internship opportunities, a screening of the movie “First They Killed My Father,” a discussion on identity and differences, an opportunity to meet members of the organization over lunch and Mertha’s talk over dinner.
Mertha’s talk was titled “Fueling the Genocidal Regime: China’s Historical Support of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and Contemporary Implications for China’s Regional and Global Power,” and served as a continuation of the issues raised in “First They Killed My Father.” The talk was sponsored by the MCAB Speakers Committee, Brainerd and Wonnacott Commons and the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs. Luong introduced Mertha by discussing a brief history of the Middlebury chapter of Project Pengyou along with a brief biography of Mertha and a summary of his accomplishments. Mertha is a professor of government,specializing in Chinese and Cambodian politics, political institutions, the policy process and the exercise of power. He is a core faculty member in the Cornell East Asia Program and the Cornell Southeast Asia Program, and also serves as president of the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS). Mertha is currently working on an institutional mapping of the organizational structure and policy making process in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge from 1970 to 2003 and a comparison of political rectification, purges, and political indoctrination in China and Cambodia.
In his lecture, Mertha primarily focused on the period between April 17, 1975 (when the Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh) to January 9, 1979 (when the Vietnamese army entered the city).
“What people may not realize is that Cambodia was the site of one of the greatest civilizations of the world and of history,” Mertha said, referring to the Angkor (or Khmer) Empire. The power and glory of this empire is still visible today in the form of Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. He briefly summarized the history of Cambodia in the latter half of the 20th century, from its status as an independent protectorate of France through the takeover of the Khmer Rouge and life in the country after this regime.
Mertha compared the key features of China and Cambodia in the 1970s. Small in land area, Cambodia was not an Asian geopolitical powerhouse and its economy was devastated during civil war. Politically, “the Khmer Rouge were not the smartest leaders of a revolutionary movement that the world has ever seen,” Mertha said, referring to the lack of governance in Cambodia. In contrast, China was “exponentially stronger than Cambodia” and was on the road to becoming a global powerhouse. Mertha argued that China, despite its power over Cambodia, benefited very little from the relations between the two countries. He used the failure to reconstruct a petroleum plant destroyed during the civil war,the construction of a military base in the center of the country and the growth of trade in the region to show that China actually had little to no influence over Cambodian infrastructure and development, military aid and trade. Drawing into contemporary ideas, Mertha noted that China could be weaker than experts previously thought.
“China is anything but a unitary actor. There [are] an impossible number of moving parts and they don’t necessarily move the way they should,” he said.
Luong was very impressed with Mertha’s talk and the engagement of the audience.
“We wanted to expose Middlebury students to topics that are generally left out or considered insignificant in the traditional classroom setting,” said Luong. “Professor Mertha commented that we didn’t really care about Cambodia until it was too late. This is happening now in our generation with the Syrian refugee crisis and even the recent horrific attack in Egypt.”
Project Pengyou plans to bring Sidney Rittenberg, Mao Zedong’s interpreter and Chinese Communist Party insider, to campus in the near future.
“Ultimately, we really hope to bring in different perspectives to our Middlebury community,” Luong said.