STUNG TRANG, Cambodia — As the sun rose over the murk of the Mekong River, the man who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen, clasped hands with the Chinese ambassador and beamed.
“The Chinese leaders respect me highly and treat me as an equal,” Mr. Hun Sen said, during the groundbreaking of a $ 57 million Chinese-funded bridge in the district of Stung Trang last month.
“Let me ask those of you who have accused me of being too close to China,” he added. “What have you offered me besides cursing and disciplining me and threatening to put sanctions on me?”
For a quarter century, the West helped rebuild Cambodia while it was still reeling from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The United States and Europe tied billions of dollars in aid to an effort to transform Cambodia into a liberal democracy.
That campaign has failed. Instead, Cambodia has come to stand as the highest-water mark for China’s influence in Southeast Asia and as the stage for Mr. Hun Sen’s evolution into one of Asia’s most unstinting autocrats.
Mr. Hun Sen, 65, likes to be known as Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander, and has said he plans to stay in power for another decade or two. He’s making sure of it: In recent months, his government has dissolved Cambodia’s main opposition party ahead of general elections set for July, jailed dozens of critics and shuttered dissenting news media outlets.
In Senate elections late last month, his Cambodian People’s Party swept all seats on offer.
Mr. Hun Sen’s enduring grip on power has been supported by China’s largess, which comes without the West’s admonishments to protect human rights and democratic institutions.
“Having alienated Western partners, Hun Sen will rely on Beijing’s political and financial support, drawing Cambodia closer to China as a result,” concluded a worldwide threat assessment by the United States intelligence community.
Mr. Hun Sen’s authoritarian descent reflects an overall retreat of democracy across Southeast Asia. There is also a perception across the region that the United States under President Trump has withdrawn its influence, leaving China free to exercise its clout. While some countries, like Vietnam, nurse historic grievances with China and have tried to resist its economic magnetism, others, like Laos and Cambodia, seem on the path toward becoming client states of Beijing.
“Cambodia is in danger of returning to being a totalitarian state,” said Mao Monyvann, a Cambodian former opposition lawmaker. “And the worst thing is that Hun Sen looked around and he saw that China supported him and that America was not punishing other Asian countries for doing similar things, so he just went ahead with his crackdown.”
China is Cambodia’s largest benefactor, providing the country with nearly one-third of its foreign investment last year. Beijing has gifted Cambodia 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers.
“In terms of funding for infrastructure, we welcome any country that’s willing,” said Sun Chanthol, Cambodia’s minister for public works and transport. “But so far, only the Chinese are responding so generously.”
The United States and other Western countries, meanwhile, are retreating further. On Feb. 27, the Trump administration announced it was cutting aid to Cambodia because the country’s Senate elections “failed to represent the genuine will of the Cambodian people.” And Germany last month placed visa restrictions on members of the Cambodian government, including on Mr. Hun Sen.
Mr. Hun Sen has long condemned Western powers for treating Cambodians as pawns in a geopolitical game. He has a point: The French colonized Cambodia and the Americans bombed the countryside. A state-building experiment by the United Nations spread graft.
But his government’s accusations have grown increasingly outlandish.
Dissenting voices have been branded as Western agents. Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was detained in September and charged with treason, accused of plotting a United States-funded regime change. He denies the charges.
“The U.S. wants to break up Cambodia and destroy our country,” said Phay Siphan, a government spokesman. “The U.S. is paranoid and wants the Cambodian government to be weak so it can come back to this region and chase China away.”
Distrust of the U.S.
During his 33 years leading Cambodia, Mr. Hun Sen has displayed a faultless sense of when to switch sides.
The son of farmers became a fighter for the Khmer Rouge, whose murderous rule from 1975 to 1979 resulted in the deaths of about a fifth of the national population.
“Yes, we were Khmer Rouge soldiers,” said Dy Bit, Mr. Hun Sen’s cousin. “There was nothing else to do.”
Mr. Dy Bit’s sister and neighbor were beaten to death by the radical communists.
“Some us killed,” he said, “and some of us were killed.”
But in 1977, Mr. Hun Sen defected to neighboring Vietnam. When Vietnamese troops ejected the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh two years later, Mr. Hun Sen, at 26, returned as the world’s youngest foreign minister.
By the time the United Nations arrived in 1992 to administer a transitional authority, Mr. Hun Sen was firmly in control of Cambodia. He later sidelined his co-prime minister, whose party had won elections in 1993.
Throughout his political reinventions, perhaps only Mr. Hun Sen’s antipathy toward the United States has remained unchanged.
He grew up in a wooden house near the Mekong, in a province that was heavily bombed by the Americans as the Vietnam War spilled across the border.
While he led the puppet administration installed by the Vietnamese, Mr. Hun Sen chafed at the fact that the United States refused to recognize his government. Instead, Washington, still smarting over its retreat from Vietnam, pushed for Cambodia to be represented at the United Nations by the Khmer Rouge, which still held a corner of Cambodia.
Mr. Hun Sen has never been invited to the White House. But he has traveled to Beijing numerous times, and in 2016, President Xi Jinping of China visited Cambodia.
Shortly before Mr. Xi’s trip, Mr. Hun Sen’s government shielded Beijing from mild criticism by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea.
During his visit, Mr. Xi described the two countries as “good neighbors, real friends who are loyal to each other.”
Mr. Hun Sen’s supporters suggest that Beijing is more sympathetic to his authoritarian impulses because that is the natural state of affairs in Asia.
“We only respect one ruler because in our history there was only one king,” said Mr. Phay Siphan, the government spokesman. “The Chinese understand this because they have closer blood to us.”
Mr. Hun Sen, however, has also borrowed from Mr. Trump’s playbook.
At the Mekong bridge ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen pointed out New York Times journalists in the crowd and noted that the newspaper had been given “fake news” awards by Mr. Trump. He then warned that if The Times’s report was not suitably positive, “the Cambodian people will remember your faces.”
Other times, he has been more direct. In a speech on March 3, Mr. Hun Sen called William Heidt, the United States ambassador to Cambodia, a “liar ambassador.”
Facebook and Cash
Mr. Hun Sen has proved adept at using social media. The public relations firm Burson-Marsteller says that his interactions on Facebook make him the third-most engaged leader in the world, although the opposition accuses Mr. Hun Sen of buying his “likes” through click farms.
On a cool February morning, Mr. Hun Sen addressed 10,000 young garment workers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The speech was broadcast live on Facebook, and a stream of hearts and thumbs up floated across Mr. Hun Sen’s page.
After the hourlong talk, which strayed into the merits of drinking one’s own urine and his recent struggle with diarrhea, Mr. Hun Sen posed for photos with members of the crowd. Every worker was given the equivalent of $ 5 in cash in an envelope that specified the money was a gift from Mr. Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany.
Yet his Cambodian People’s Party is not assured of the youth vote in the election scheduled for July 29. In the last election, in 2013, the opposition, buoyed by support from young Cambodians, threatened to unseat the ruling party.
Mr. Hun Sen’s campaign strategy has been to position his government as the sole guarantor of peace in Cambodia.
“Without us, there would still be war, and you wouldn’t have the choice to work in factories,” he told the garment workers.
Yet nearly 70 percent of Cambodia’s population is younger than 30. They have known no other leader but Mr. Hun Sen, and they appear eager for change.
Mr. Hun Sen, though, seems keen to keep politics a family concern. He has put his youngest son, Hun Many, in charge of courting the nation’s youth. Currently Cambodia’s second-youngest lawmaker, Mr. Hun Many has expressed interest in becoming prime minister.
Mr. Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, is widely considered to be angling for the job of commander in chief. The prime minister’s second son, Hun Manith, is rising in the intelligence services.
“We have to remember that democracy is an important pillar, but it is not the only one,” said Mr. Hun Many, who was educated in the United States and Australia.
China’s Economic Lift
Mr. Hun Sen’s Chinese backers echo the importance of stability.
“Under the leadership of Lord Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has maintained peaceful development and enjoyed lively economic growth,” Xiong Bo, the Chinese ambassador, said at the Mekong ceremony.
Cambodia achieved 6.9 percent economic growth last year. In 2005, half of Cambodians lived below the poverty line. Less than a decade later, fewer than 14 percent did.
But even as millions of rural residents have graduated to factory work, expectations are rising along with income levels. Security officers have responded to workers’ protests with bullets.
That puts all the more pressure on Mr. Hun Sen to attract Chinese money. Western investors have been put off by Cambodia’s endemic corruption, not to mention the official anti-Western rhetoric.
In Sihanoukville, business is booming. In the coastal backwater once popular with Western backpackers, 20 new casinos have opened in the past two years. A dozen more are scheduled to begin operations this year.
The clientele is almost exclusively from China, and Chinese arrivals to Sihanoukville rose by nearly 200 percent last year.
On day five of business at the Chinese-owned New MGM casino last month, Chinese gamblers could be seen placing bets of $ 100,000 in the V.I.P. room. Chinese managers oversaw the till while Cambodian prostitutes napped nearby.
Mr. Hun Sen’s vacation villa is across the street from the New MGM.
In late January, Yun Min, the governor of Preah Sihanouk Province, wrote an internal report warning that so many Chinese workers had descended on Sihanoukville that the local economy was suffering. He denounced the influence of Chinese gangsters.
“Some mischievous people,” he cautioned in the report, might use Sihanoukville’s makeover “to attack and influence the Cambodia-China relationship.”
Mr. Hun Sen publicly dismissed Mr. Yun Min’s criticism. Less than a week later, the governor seemed chastened.
“Like in any family, we might have disagreements with China,” said Mr. Yun Min, sitting in his office, a Chinese construction crane hovering above. “But our Lord Prime Minister Hun Sen is very clear that we still love our family.”