Cultural Revolution in Cambodia: Communist Spies, Overseas Chinese, and Radical Urban Culture during Phnom Penh’s Global Sixties


“In front of our eyes was a dark and deathly-still ghost town, with nary a pedestrian or automobile in sight. All around the courtyards, restaurants, and dance halls, those bustling crowds, the once-boisterous music, and thousands of neon lights that lit up the evenings had disappeared, and all that was left was a cold, lonely, and faded city.” So reflected Huang Shiming 黃時明 (aka. Ng Xibeng; nom de plume Tie Ge 鐡戈), a Cambodia-born and locally-recruited Khmer-Chinese Central Investigation Department (調查部; CID) intelligence officer, in his memoir Waves through the Mekong River: A Faithful Record of the Khmer Rouge (逐浪湄河: 紅色高棉實錄). Few records of what Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intelligence operations entailed during the Mao years exist, and virtually all state records and documents on China-Cambodia affairs remain officially “classified in perpetuity” (永久保密). As such, there has been little scholarship to date on CCP intelligence operations at home and abroad, and no extant study of the role that Chinese intelligence operations played in spreading Maoism globally.

An important site where Maoism took root was Cambodia, where CCP intelligence and propaganda work sowed seeds of Maoist fanaticism beyond the Mainland. How did the CID, operating out of its headquarters in the People’s Republic of China Embassy in Phnom Penh, foment Maoist zeal among overseas Chinese (華僑) communities and China-curious activist-intellectuals in Cambodia? I argue that the CID’s three-pronged strategy of local recruitment, community outreach, and cultural revolution-style agitprop via the popular Chinese-language newspaper, Sino-Khmer Daily (棉華日報)spurred Maoist ardor first among ethnic Chinese, then among Cambodian intellectuals. Enthused by radical materials and Phnom Penh’s radical urban culture of the 1960s, overseas Chinese and Khmer progressive alike flocked to join the ethnic Chinese revolutionary movement (華運) and Khmer Rouge, respectively. To trace this link, I highlight three hitherto overlooked primary sources that shed light on the mechanisms and praxes of global Maoism: memoirs of two Cambodia-based CID intelligence agents, Vita Chieu 周德高 and Huang Shiming; and an archival collection of popular overseas Chinese Cambodian newspapers, one title of which operated as the PRC Embassy’s official propaganda outlet (事事昕命於中國大使館的宣傳媒體). In drawing from these rich resources, this project fills long-standing gaps in the study of CCP intelligence work abroad, the methodology of global Maoism, and the modern history of Cambodia’s Chinese communities.

This is a hybrid (in-person and online) seminar.

About the Speaker

Dr. Matthew Galway is Senior Lecturer of Chinese History at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Emergence of Global Maoist: China’s Red Evangelism and the Cambodian Communist Movement, 1949-1979 (Cornell University Press, 2022), a nominee for the Jerry Bentley (American Historical Association), John K. Fairbank (American Historical Association), Joseph Levenson (Association for Asian Studies), and Reid (Asian Studies Association of Australia) Prizes. He is also first editor and contributor to Experiments with Marxism-Leninism in Cold War Southeast Asia (Australian National University Press, 2022). He has published his research in The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Modern Intellectual History, China Information, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Cross Currents, and Asian Ethnicity, among others, and is a frequent contributor to the Ear 2 Asia Podcast. He is Editor-in-Chief of East Asian History, and his current book project is entitled Cultural Revolution in Cambodia: Communist Spies, Overseas Chinese, and Radical Urban Culture during Phnom Penh’s Global Sixties.

The ANU China Seminar Series is supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Contact Information

Australian Centre on China in the World, the Australian National University

Contact Email