The intriguing role of the strange-looking -- and even stranger-smelling -- durian fruit in contemporary Sino-Thai relations is little known. Despite its infamously pungent smell and prickly exterior, the so-called "king of fruits" (known as tu-rien in Thai and liu lian in standard Chinese) helped forge Thai-Chinese diplomatic relations in 1975 when Thai Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj visited Beijing. He brought along 160 Thai delegates and some special gifts for Chinese leaders, including 200 durians as well as Thai beer and whiskey, to help cement relations.
From then, the Chinese public developed a taste for Thai durians. Their enthusiasm was recently highlighted when Chinese consumers bought 80,000 durians in just one minute on Alibaba Group Holding's Tmall, the Chinese online shopping site. The durians on offer, weighing a total of 200 tons, were snapped up for 199 yuan ($31) for an individual order of 4.5kg to 5kg.
Thais were astounded at the news. Normally, they buy durians at market, smelling and poking them to feel the underlying fruit. Few Thais would contemplate buying such a costly and challenging food item online. While Hong Kong companies have been trading them over the internet for the past few years, the new durian retail frenzy is part of a Chinese-Thai initiative to help develop Thailand's digital economy, including e-commerce, spearheaded by the Alibaba Group. Jack Ma Yun, Alibaba's executive chairman and co-founder, said recently in Bangkok that China was on its way to becoming the world's largest consumer, driven by its growing middle class of about 300 million people. "There is no better time than now for trade-oriented countries to seize this opportunity to export to China as the country continues to open its door wide for global trade," he said.
The Chinese have been familiar with durians and its distinctive taste for centuries, not least because their southern province of Yunnan also grows the fruit. But as any durian aficionado will tell you, Chinese durians are not as creamy, nor dry yet crunchy as Thailand's famed Monthong, or "golden pillow," variety. Wiboon Khusakul, a former Thai ambassador to China, recently said that Chinese President Xi Jinping, a known durian fan, once asked whether the Monthong durian was Thailand's best. In recent years, a boom in Chinese tourism to Thailand has boosted China's durian awareness.
As part of a special trading arrangement agreed in 2004, China allowed Thailand to export fresh durians to the country to celebrate their excellent bilateral relations, according to Wiboon. Durians from other countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia still must be boxed as frozen products before being exported to China. He also noted that Jack Ma's wife loves Thai durians, apparently a factor in the "durian alliance" between Alibaba and Thailand. Wiboon even joked with Ma about marketing durians in China "in crazy ways," he said. That "craziness" now seems to include selling 1,333 durians per second online.
As fresh durians fetch a higher premium, Malaysia has been pressing China for the same durian trading privileges as Thailand and is claiming that its Musang King variety is superior to Thailand's Monthong, saying it is creamier and has a thicker meat and stronger bitter-sweet taste.
Whether it intends to stick by Thailand for fresh produce or diversify its sourcing, Alibaba plans to sell 3 billion yuan worth of durians over the next three years to the Chinese market through its Tmall platform, Hema supermarkets and RT-Mart hypermarkets. Tmall claims it has already sold 2 million Thai durians on its platform.
Some Thai political observers have criticized the government for favoring Alibaba, fearing that the online behemoth will monopolize the marketing of Thai durians and other agricultural products to China. Thais have often been suspicious of deals with foreigners that seem too good to be true. But such an attitude carries the risk of killing potentially highly lucrative commercial transactions. In today's interconnected world, Thais should realize that Alibaba has abundant alternative sources for the products it peddles. Just remember that Malaysia's durian producers would love to get Alibaba's backing in the Chinese market.
It was once said that Thailand could grow rich if it sold just one pair of shoes each year to every Chinese person. But the road to riches would be paved with solid gold if Thailand could sell a $60 durian to every Chinese online. That concept has not been lost on the Thais and their thriving industry for smelly fruit.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Thai journalist, senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and currently an Asian Studies Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.