Collateral Damage of China’s Virus Policy: Fruit

HANOI, Vietnam — In Vietnam’s Pham Thanh Hong dragon fruit orchard, most of the lights are off. Everything is silent except for the periodic thud of ripe pink fruit falling to the ground.

Mr. Pham, 46, does not bother to harvest them.

The farmer saw dragon fruit prices plummet 25% in the last week of December to near zero, pushed down by what several Vietnamese officials call China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy . “I’m too discouraged to use my strength to pick them up and then throw them away,” Mr Pham said.

Selling fruit to China amid the coronavirus pandemic is not for the faint-hearted.

China has gone to great lengths to keep the virus outside its borders. He checked the mail and tested thousands of fruit and frozen food parcels despite little evidence that the virus could be transmitted through these products. It locked down entire cities, leaving Chinese citizens stranded without medicine or food.

This strict virus policy has also had alarming consequences far beyond China. Fruit growers in Southeast Asia are particularly vulnerable because a large portion of the region’s exports are directed to the country. In 2020, total fruit exports from Southeast Asia to China were around $6 billion.

“If they buy, we’re alive. If they don’t, we are dead,” Mr. Pham said. “We grow dragon fruit, but it looks like a gamble.”

Long lines of trucks from Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos are now stuck at Chinese border crossings. Dragon fruit growers in Vietnam, which mainly export to China, have gone into deep debt.

In Myanmar, watermelon exporters are dumping their fruit at the border because truckers have been ordered to quarantine for 15 days before they can bring the goods to China.

The restrictions appear to have particularly hurt Vietnamese dragon fruit growers. After nine Chinese cities said they detected the coronavirus on dragon fruit imported from Vietnam, authorities closed supermarkets selling the fruit, forced at least 1,000 people who had come into contact with the fruit into quarantine and ordered customers to get tested.

Then, in late December, China closed its border with Vietnam for the first time during the pandemic.

“China didn’t say anything in advance to Vietnam,” said Dang Phuc Nguyen, secretary general of the Vietnam Fruit and Vegetable Association. “They acted very suddenly.”

More than a million Vietnamese growers of dragon fruit, mango and jackfruit have been affected by the restrictions, according to Dang. China accounts for more than 55% of Vietnam’s $3.2 billion in fruit and vegetable exports, chief among which is dragon fruit.

Pham Thi Tu Lam, a farmer from Vietnam’s Vinh Long province, said she decided to switch from growing oranges to dragon fruit in 2015. At that time, she could fetch $1.22 per kilogram. , a little over two pounds, of fruit. Now, because prices have plunged to a tenth of that, she’s had to give up 1,150 of the concrete poles where the plants are usually grown.

Unable to find buyers, she gave most of last year’s harvest to neighbours, used it to feed the chickens or threw it away. She had invested over $1,300 and three months in growing dragon fruit. “It’s all gone now, there’s nothing left,” she said.

The ripple effects of China’s zero Covid policy have accelerated discussions of Southeast Asia’s reliance on the world’s second-largest economy. They also coincided with growing concern in the region over Beijing’s presence in the South China Sea, disputed waters that many Southeast Asian countries claim as their own.

“Until Covid, it seemed to me that China’s economic influence was so great in Southeast Asia that all of those countries, despite the political tensions, were gravitating more towards the Chinese orbit,” said Bill Pritchard, professor at the University of Sydney. who studied Southeast Asia’s fruit trade with China. “I think it was kind of a bump in the road. If it’s permanent or if it’s temporary, I don’t know.

For more than a decade, fruit growers in Southeast Asia have capitalized on a rising Chinese middle class that has become increasingly health conscious. They also benefited from a strong road and highway network linking their country to China.

Many of them had high hopes for the Lunar New Year, during which plates of cut tropical fruit are common features at dinner tables across China during weeklong holidays.

Chinese authorities reopened the border with Vietnam last month, but they have not eased their control measures. At the end of January, around 2,000 vehicles were stuck at the border, compared to 5,000 in mid-December, according to Mr Dang of the Vietnam Fruit and Vegetable Association. Vietnamese officials have told businesses to avoid the crossing for now.

Nguyen Anh Duong, director specializing in economics at Vietnam’s Central Institute of Economic Management, said the Vietnamese government is trying to help farmers find alternative markets, including diverting dragon fruit to local supermarkets in Vietnam. .

But diversifying from China will be difficult. Using airplanes and ships to send fruit to other countries would increase costs. Many of Southeast Asia’s fruit growing regions are not close to airports.

For now, fruit growers are preparing for greater difficulties.

Aye Myo Kyi, a watermelon farmer in Myanmar, said he had to throw away his watermelons when China cracked down on the border with Myanmar in April 2021.

“I have never lost money like this before,” said Mr. Aye Myo Kyi, who has been selling watermelons since 2010. He said he has now switched to selling beans domestically.

Thai exporters who typically ship their fruit through Vietnam and Laos, which share crossing points with China, have been frustrated with government leaders for not helping them deal with their losses.

Worakanya Panyaprasertkit, an exporter of longans in Thailand, said a shipment of its fruit had been stuck at the border with Vietnam for 60 days. By the time China announced it would open its border crossing with the country in January, most of the fruit was already spoilt.

“We complained to different agencies, they are aware of our issues, but even then we saw no progress,” she said. “They leave us to fight for our own lives.”

Exporters do not expect the situation to improve before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on February 20. China is also trying to eradicate several outbreaks of the Omicron variant at home, which could lead to even tighter border controls.

Patchaya Khiaophan, vice president of marketing for the Thai Durian Association, said she expects China to continue to open and close its borders periodically in the coming months. Thailand is developing disinfectants to spray on containers of durian for export and has tightened safety and packaging standards for the spiny fruit in time for harvest in April.

“We need to reassure the Chinese side that the Thai durian is Covid-free,” Ms Khiaophan said. “We prepared our farmers and our business people,” she said. “For me, I don’t have high hopes.”

Vo Kieu Bao Uyen brought back from Vietnam and Sui Lee Wee from Singapore. Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting from Bangkok. Amy Chang Chien contributed to the research.