The front pages of China’s newspapers today are dominated by the death of the former Cambodian king and ‘friend of China’ Norodom Sihanouk (西哈努克国王), who passed away in Beijing yesterday from a heart attack. The People’s Daily (人民日报) has three related pieces on its front page today, with three generations of China’s top leaders involved: Jiang Zemin sent a telegram of condolence to the Cambodian empress dowager; Hu Jintao sent a telegram of condolence to the empress dowager and the current king; and Xi Jinping visited the empress dowager in Beijing.
The former Cambodian king was held in very high esteem by the Chinese Communist Party, as Hu Jintao’s telegram of condolence put it:
We are shocked to learn that the Chinese people’s mighty friend, the Cambodian people’s outstanding leader His Majesty King Sihanouk, has sadly passed away after an illness. We are deeply saddened by this. I solemnly represent the Chinese government, people and myself in expressing our heartfelt grief and empathy to the king, empress dowager, government and people of Cambodia. King Sihanouk was the father of Cambodian independence, and devoted all his life to working with great energy for the independence and peace of the Cambodian people.
King Sihanouk led Cambodia to independence from France in 1953, yet he was ousted in a coup in 1970 and threw in his lot with the communist Khmer Rouge. Association with the Khmer Rouge regime to many tainted his image, although he did not have any power during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. After 1970, he spent much of his time in exile in China, where he was close to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In an earlier era in which China had few friends abroad, King Sihanouk and Cambodia was one of China’s few international allies. He finally returned to the throne in 1993, and abdicated in 2004 in favor of his son.
As one of China’s “old friends”, King Sihanouk was in very select company. A Southern Weekly report of March 2011 researched the use of the phrase ‘old friend of the Chinese people’ in the People’s Daily database from 1949 to 2010, and found that 601 people from 123 countries were referred to in this way. Over this period, King Sihanouk was 21 times referred to as an ‘old friend of China.’
Here’s how a few other papers in China today conveyed the news:
Social media reflects a different set of feelings. A tweet by Jushiyimian (菊十一画) who at the time of writing has 269,979 followers has the following complaint, together with photos of the national flag flying at half mast at Tiananmen Square on October 16 :
After the [Wenzhou] train crash, the flag did not fly at half mast, after the Beijing floods, the flag did not fly at half mast, nor after the Shaanzi traffic accident, nor the Yiliang [Yunnan} earthquake… A foreign layabout dies, and we fly the flag at half mast. This friendship leaves me speechless.
Links and sources
People’s Daily : 胡锦涛向西哈莫尼国王、莫尼列太后致唁电
NPR: King Sihanouk, An Artist And Architect Of Cambodia
Offbeat China: Who is the “old friend of China?” (translation / summary of the below link)
Southern Weekly: 谁是“中国人民的老朋友”