Chia Ek Chor fled his typhoon-ravaged village in southern China and started a new life in Thailand selling vegetable seeds with his brother in 1921. Almost a century later, with the largest family fortune in the country, his descendants are becoming Chinese President Xi Jinping’s key economic allies.
Chia’s son Dhanin Chearavanont is senior chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group Co., a vast conglomerate that is the world’s biggest producer of animal feed, shrimp as well as a top telecom firm in Thailand. It is at the center of an ambitious plan to turn Thailand’s eastern seaboard into a tech hub with bullet trains, 5G networks and smart car factories.
The so-called Eastern Economic Corridor is the flagship program of Thailand’s military regime, a bid to leverage Japanese investment and Chinese tech giants like Alibaba Group Holding and Huawei Technologies to revive an economy that grew 4.1% last year, the slowest rate in Southeast Asia.
But the messy outcome of the general election last month means that projects could come under greater scrutiny as critics accuse authorities of dispossessing local farmers to make way for Chinese investors.
Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative has come under fire in some countries for saddling them with heavy debts. But the military junta that seized power in Thailand in a 2014 coup has embraced the alliance, promising a $53 billion investment to develop three coastal provinces close to the capital — Chachoengsao, Chonburi and Rayong.
CP Group is a main conduit for the Chinese investment in the region. A CP-led consortium including China Railway Construction Corp. was the lowest bidder for a 225 billion-baht contract to build a 124-mile rail network linking Bangkok’s two international airports and another near Pattaya with an industrial zone on the eastern coast. The group is also bidding on an airport zone.
But a change of government could lead to greater scrutiny of EEC deals. With no outright majority in the March election, seven parties opposed to the military are trying to form a coalition government.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military backed party has explored a coalition with the Democrats, which was headed by royalist former Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva until he stepped down last month after poor electoral showing. His father was a CP Foods director for more than 15 years. With no clear majority, it could be weeks or months before a new government is formed.
The opposition has vowed to put up a fight, tired of policies that promote monopolies in the $455 billion economy, said Bhokin Bhalakula, a former adviser to Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister about five years ago.
Bhokin favors digging a canal across Thailand’s narrow isthmus in the south as an alternative growth model to the EEC.