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A Chinese businesswoman in Phnom Penh became the center of an uproar in Cambodia and in China over an act of disrespect toward the “King Father of Cambodia,” Norodom Sihanouk, who died of a heart attack at age of 89 in Beijing on Oct. 15.

On Oct. 22, the 44 year-old Chinese manager of a Cambodian clothes factory named Wang Xiaojiao grew frustrated with Cambodian workers in her factory for conducting prolonged mourning rituals in honor of their dead king during working hours. While urging them to go back to work, Ms. Wang picked up a Sihanouk photo and tore it up in front of her workers.

Her arrest followed in short order. A Cambodian court promptly convicted her and sentenced her to a suspended one year jail term, a $750 fine and immediate deportation.

Before the deportation was carried out, the Cambodian police forced Ms. Wang to kneel down and kowtow to a Sihanouk portrait in front of a crowd of several thousands.

This incident would have faded away quietly had there not been a series of official statements from senior Chinese government officials.

“The lady’s behavior is very stupid, and we are also very angry with her,” Yang Tianyue, the spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia told China Radio International at the time of the court ruling.

The next day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei announced in Beijing that “King Sihanouk was a great friend of the Chinese people, deeply loved by the Cambodian people. The individual action of this woman was extremely wrong, and she should be prosecuted by the Cambodian side according to its law.”

Statements condemning Ms. Wang by high-ranking Chinese officials quickly drew fire from a befuddled and angry Internet crowd in China.

“What kneeled down was not a woman, but a nation called China!” one blogger opined.

“It’s true that King Sihanouk should not be insulted, but should a Chinese person be insulted as well?” another blogger asked in anger. “The Chinese woman has clearly been insulted by the Cambodian authorities, is our Foreign Ministry blind to our own humiliations?”

Cambodia is China’s best hope to drive a wedge in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Phnom Penh has been closely following China’s instructions in defusing the South China Sea territorial claims with four of the ASEAN’s 10 member states.

In the summer, under pressure from China, Cambodia, as the host nation of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ annual summit, intervened vigorously to cause a breakdown of the long-honored tradition of issuing a joint statement to stress ASEAN unity.

Since 1970 when he was deposed by the pro-U.S. Gen. Lon Nol and Cambodia’s National Assembly, Sihanouk had become Beijing’s most treasured bargaining chip to influence Southeast Asian affairs.

China in turn had given Sihanouk the royal treatment with the most luxurious extravaganza imaginable in the Communist nation. For the past several decades, Sihanouk had become the ultimate symbol of an international freeloader among many in China.

• Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at