When Pol Pot arrived in Beijing on a state visit 21 years ago, 100,000 Beijingers turned out to greet him as he was driven down the Avenue of Eternal Peace in open-top limousine. A roar of applause greeted his motorcade and bystanders released hundreds of balloons as hundreds of schoolchildren held up coloured cards which said welcome in Chinese and Khmer. Deng Xiaoping had met him at the airport and when he arrived in the Great Hall of the People eight other top leaders, a third of the politburo, turned out to receive him. At a banquet Chairman Hua Guofeng gave a toast to 'the health and longevity of Comrade Pol Pot' and declared that: 'As your brother and battle companions, the Chinese people feel happy and encouraged by your glorious successes'. 'We are proud to have such battle companions,' declared the People's Daily . It ran special columns describing how, 'in today's Cambodia, you see flourishing scenes everywhere'. Yet now, Pol Pot's death, in an obscure corner along the Cambodian border with Thailand, has gone virtually unremarked upon by the Chinese media. Western reports have been briefly noted and on Wednesday only the Beijing Youth Daily ran a story, but without mentioning the connection with a leader who at one time was China's closest ally. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was equally offhand. 'China has cut its ties with the Khmer Rouge a long time ago. We know very little about its leaders,' a spokesman said. One can scour the China National Library for references to Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge and find almost nothing but a few speeches and newspaper clippings from that 1977 visit. Pol Pot may have disappeared down another Chinese memory hole but many of China's neighbours, not just Cambodia, are still suffering from the legacy of Mao Zedong's generous support for revolutionary armies all over Asia. China armed and trained rebel groups in almost every Southeast Asian country including Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, even when it encouraged warm relations with their official governments. Aid rose during the Cultural Revolution when China's rivalry with the Soviet Union intensified and they competed for influence in the region as the Western colonial powers retreated. The recipients of the greatest and most long-standing largesse are now the poorest countries in the region - famine-stricken North Korea is one example, but another is Burma. China supported and trained the Burmese Communist Party for decades, even though Burma was the first Asian nation to recognise the Chinese communist government in 1949. The Burmese Communist Party became the largest and best-equipped of the many rebel groups fighting the Burmese government with more than 20,000 men, also leading several ethnic separatist groups. An ethnic rebellion in 1989 ended the Burmese Communist Party's dominance and nine of the armed groups formerly under the communists, including the Wa, have since tried to negotiate deals with Rangoon. Many of the rebel groups have since turned to growing opium while China has given political asylum to 14 leading members of the former politburo. Even though commerce has replaced ideology as the basis for Beijing's policies towards its neighbours, it has continued to protect the old followers of Mao. Above all it has protected the Khmer Rouge, despite the reluctance now to even acknowledge how strong the ties once were. In 1979 Deng Xiaoping, despite his antipathy to Maoist economics, was so incensed by how Hanoi was ousting Pol Pot that he ordered an attack to 'teach Vietnam a lesson' and to try to keep Pol Pot in power. Some sources also claim that China continued training Khmer Rouge troops in Yunnan and Sichuan in the 1980s, long after their atrocities were revealed in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion. China did not stop supplying arms to the Khmer Rouge until at least 1991 and there is evidence that Pol Pot's fighters still had large stocks of Chinese arms for years afterwards. There is also evidence that China gave top Khmer Rouge leaders Chinese citizenship and passports. Among those reported in the past to be travelling on mainland passports are nominal Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister. The latter spent many years living in Beijing. China's geopolitical interests may play a role in explaining Beijing's past loyalty to the Khmer Rouge. Another unspoken factor may be respect for Mao's memory. Mao might well have personally helped create the Khmer Rouge in the early 1960s as a party separate from an Indo-Chinese party that was led by the Vietnamese. Much about the origins of Pol Pot remains murky but it seems likely he helped found the Khmer Rouge in 1966 after returning from his first known visit to China. Although China was still suffering from the after-effects of the terrible Great Leap Forward famine in which 30 million died, Pol Pot toured China, including the model communes of Dazhai, and returned deeply impressed. After his victory he would return to Dazhai in 1977 and then brought Dazhai's leader, Chen Yonggui, to tour Cambodia's own communes. According to a biography of Chen, he told Pol Pot that 'problems not solved either by Lenin or the Chinese people have been unexpectedly solved by the Cambodians first.' Mao felt proud of Pol Pot's success and felt it reflected his devout adherence to Maoist practices. When the Cambodian arrived on a secret visit in 1975, fresh from winning victory, Mao praised him, saying: 'You have achieved in one stroke what we failed with all our masses.' Hua Guofeng later said that Mao and Zhou Enlai 'all gave extraordinary care to the struggle of the Cambodian people', which they viewed as evidence of how successful Maoism could be if applied sufficiently vigorously. In 1977 Pol Pot admitted that the Khmer Rouge owed everything to Mao. 'In our revolutionary struggle, we successfully adopt Mao Zedong thought in a creative way, to start from bare hands and completely defeat the American imperialists and their running dogs,' Pol Pot said. He explained that all the people believed in Mao because 'his ideas of building the party as a strong centre, establishing a brave revolutionary army, his analysis of social classes, his ideas on contradiction and practice, on establishing rural revolutionary bases and on revolutionary violence, on people's war are still effective, sharp and invisible weapons.' Pol Pot boasted that his communes and his irrigation projects were so successful at boosting food production that Cambodia had plenty of food. 'We are able to export several thousand tonnes of rice in 1977,' he said,predicting that the population could double or triple in the following 10 years. Soon after the Khmer Rouge's victory, China promised Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary an enormous US$1 billion (HK$7.74 billion) in aid of which US$20 million was in the form of a gift. Tens of thousands of Chinese technicians and advisers were sent to Cambodia and the PLA also delivered large amounts of military aid including ships, planes and tanks. One delegation was led by Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai's wife, who said in Angkor Wat that: 'Democratic Kampuchea is like a pine tree standing firm on a mountain top which cannot be destroyed by any force.' In the 1980s the Vietnamese-backed government produced photos showing Chinese advisers at Angkor Wat allegedly with guards of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison where so many were tortured and killed. The timing of Pol Pot's death, just as it seemed likely he could be captured and tried, means some will continue to speculate about Beijing's hand in his final end. China has also made it clear that it will oppose any attempt by Washington to put the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership on trial for crimes against humanity.