KFC opens first outlet in Tibet

People walk past a KFC restaurant in Lhasa, Tibet.
People walk past a KFC restaurant in Lhasa, Tibet.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - United States fast food giant KFC has opened its first restaurant in Tibet, the venue's property manager said on Wednesday (March 9), more than a decade after the chain's first attempt to establish a foothold ended in controversy.

Pictures posted online showed long lines at the counters, and dozens of flower displays and a red carpet outside the premises, in a shopping mall in the regional capital Lhasa.

"As a diehard fan of KFC I waited in line for ages, and felt like crying when I took my first lick of my ice cream cone," said one social media user.

The opening comes despite campaign groups expressing alarm over the store's presence when it was announced in December, and the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader and Nobel laureate, previously declaring that the cruel treatment endured by chickens raised and killed for KFC violated Tibetan values.

Campaign groups warned KFC on Wednesday over the opening.

Mr Alistair Currie, of London-based Free Tibet, told AFP: "Tibet is an occupied country and Tibetans have been squeezed out of business and economic development by Han Chinese immigration and China's imposition of Mandarin as the language of education, business and government."

KFC's parent company Yum Brands needed to ensure Tibetans were hired and promoted fairly in the restaurant, and that the Tibetan language was used, he said.

The International Campaign for Tibet said it was asking Yum how it was complying with the US Tibet Policy Act, which requires investments to protect Tibetan culture and livelihoods, and its own pledges of corporate social responsibility.

"It is hard to see how they will be able to implement those principles given the political climate in Lhasa today," said its president Matteo Macacci.

"Tibetans are largely marginalised, economically disadvantaged and subject to a social and economic agenda imposed from the top down in order to ensure the control of the Chinese Communist Party over Tibet."

Images of the interior posted online showed a large image of the Potala palace - once the residence of the Dalai Lamas - and triangle motifs labelled with Tibetan mountain names in English, among them Qomolangma, the local designation for Everest.

Such design elements "may play well with Chinese and foreign tourists who want a little fast culture with their fast food but the onus is on Yum to show that its commitment to the community is not tokenistic and superficial", said Mr Currie of Free Tibet.

The official Xinhua news agency said that more foreign brands were "hoping to do business in the region" as its infrastructure improved.

KFC entered China in 1987, and now has just over 5,000 outlets in more than 1,100 locations across the country, most of them company-owned, its parent Yum Brands says on its website.

It has said it intends to spin off its China operations into a separate company.

KFC had plans to enter region as early as 2004, but pulled the plug on the idea, saying it was not yet economically feasible.

The Lhasa KFC opened on Tuesday, a woman from the Shenli Shidai shopping centre property rental department confirmed to AFP.

Yum declined to comment to AFP on Wednesday on the opening, but after plans for the restaurant were announced in December, a Yum representative said it would "provide employment opportunities, and support the development of the regional supply chain" and "incorporate local design elements".

In December, Xinhua reported that KFC also plans to build a 4.67ha frozen storage facility in Lhasa's suburbs "to prepare for further expansion in the region".

Rights groups accuse China of political and religious repression in Tibet.

Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and that it has brought economic growth to the region, and accuses the Dalai Lama of separatism.