Campaigners alarmed by opening of first KFC store in Tibet

Employees work at a KFC store in Shanghai in this July 29, 2014 file photo. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - Campaign groups expressed alarm on Thursday over an announcement that KFC will soon open its first store in Tibet - more than a decade after the fast-food giant's last lambasted and abandoned attempt to enter the region.

A KFC will be opened by a franchisee in the regional capital of Lhasa "to serve local consumers and tourists alike," a representative for parent company Yum! Brand told AFP Thursday.

"The restaurant will incorporate local design elements, provide employment opportunities, and support the development of the regional supply chain," Yum! added.

But the London-based group Free Tibet entreated Yum! to think beyond cosmetic issues of design.

"There's nothing in principle wrong with a Western company setting up shop in Tibet, but it's always a source of concern because so far, very few companies have shown that they have any interest in bringing benefit to Tibet and Tibetans," said campaigner Alistair Currie.

KFC should ensure that Tibetans will be hired, trained and promoted fairly, and that the Tibetan language will be used in its store, he added, saying: "The onus is on Yum! to show that its commitment to the community is not tokenistic and superficial. They haven't done that yet."

The new two-storey, 540-sq-m restaurant is scheduled to open as soon as January in a downtown Lhasa shopping mall, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

KFC also plans to build a 4.67ha frozen storage in the city's suburbs "to prepare for further expansion in the region", it added.

China, which has ruled Tibet since the 1950s, has been accused of trying to eradicate its Buddhist-based culture through political and religious repression and large-scale immigration by Han Chinese.

But Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and that it has brought economic growth to the region.

Foreign companies increasingly seek to tap into Tibet's economic growth, with some such as the Intercontinental Hotel Group also stirring up controversy with their entry into Lhasa.

Last year, the company opened its luxury "Lhasa Paradise" resort to the public despite the concerns of advocacy groups over human rights violations and religious repression in the region.

KFC itself had planned to enter Tibet as early as 2004, but pulled the plug on the idea, saying it wasn't yet economically feasible.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, wrote a letter of protest to Yum! at the time, declaring that the cruel treatment endured by chickens raised and killed for KFC "violates Tibetan values".

"It is quite natural for me to support those who are currently protesting the introduction of industrial food practices into Tibet that will perpetuate the suffering of huge numbers of chickens," he wrote.

Times have changed in the past decade.

"Before KFC chose to enter Tibet, we already had some fast food restaurants such as Dicos," Chen Biao, manager of the Lhasa Shenlishidai mall where the new KFC store will be based, told Xinhua, referring to China's home-grown fried chicken chain.

"The consumers in Tibet accept fried chicken and hamburgers well."

An online restaurant review penned by a visiting foreigner to Lhasa last month noted that a Dicos hamburger was a let down when "at a near by restaurant you can get a yak steak for the same price".

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