- “Researching Sino-Cambodian Relations: Some Personal Reflections”
I have been asked to share some reflections on the challenge of researching Sino-Cambodian relations in China, particularly with regard to the era before the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The bulk of the research for my dissertation and book, China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Columbia University Press 2009), drew on both interviews and archival sources. I will first discuss here the eighty-plus interviews conducted for this project.
My initial goal was not just to find out why Chinese policy makers had pursued the choices they made; it was also to ascertain why they had not chosen other options that, in some senses, might have been more expedient or efficient. So the interviews had to be long and detailed, and I needed interviewees who would be able to remember not only what they chose to do but what their other options had been. As I formally started this research in Beijing in August 2002, it became clear that finding people with that ability, willingness, and recall—between twenty and forty years after the fact—was going to be difficult.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) does not make it very easy to know which diplomats served at which posts during particular periods of time. There are gazettes of MFA personnel, although those were published [End Page 365] only sporadically until the late 1980s, so I depended almost entirely on retired diplomats I had previously met to introduce me to their former colleagues, as well as to a few associations of retired diplomats. The latter in particular turned out to be an invaluable conduit. Many of these people were extremely generous with their connections and their time; arguably one of my best research days included lunch with a half dozen retired diplomats who had served across Southeast Asia between roughly 1960 and 1980—lunch went on for four hours as they reminisced.
In some instances the spouses or grown children of the retired diplomats assisted in their discussions with me. While I did not feel it appropriate to cite information provided by family members, some of their descriptions of key political players or of life as a Chinese diplomatic family provided important contextual information about the circumstances in which these people had worked.
One inherent challenge of interviews, of course, is that it can be hard to know whether the stories people are telling you are the truth, particularly when those stories concern unpleasant events about which your interviewees clearly still have strong feelings, or when you challenge or probe their stories for inconsistencies. In some ways, the conversations were made easier because I was asking for a frame of reference—why people had chosen X rather than Y—but even in extremely polite, naïve, graduate-student-sounding Chinese, it was hard to avoid the implied subtext. Some were extremely defensive, particularly on the subject of Chinese state support to the Khmer Rouge; others were not shy about saying it had been a terrible decision. Two of those I interviewed from this period were clearly very upset to be discussing their time in Cambodia in the mid-1970s; one of them broke down crying and could not finish. A few other interviewees decided mid-conversation that I must be an agent of the United States government sent to gather damning details about Chinese policy; despite this erroneous assumption none halted the interview.
But, remarkably, virtually all of those I interviewed that year—about sixty people who had served in Southeast Asia at some time between 1950 and 2000—were able to provide quite a bit of detail about how they and the Chinese government perceived the situation and players in Cambodia and the region, and why they chose the policies they did. I feel genuinely privileged to have heard about their lives and experiences, which had been tied up [End Page 366] with some of the most pivotal events for China in the post–World War II era. One of the other challenges was relying on people as sources: the last of the only four people I interviewed who had actually...