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Not Everyone is Happy as KFC Becomes the First Western Fast Food Joint to Open in Tibet

"Finger-licking good" endorsed by Chinese authorities

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The people of Tibet may have long sought out inner peace through their spirituality, but now they’ll also have a quick way to satisfy their immediate cravings with the opening of a brand new KFC restaurant in Lhasa, the first Western fast food chain to have a store in Tibet.

The huge 5,000 square meter store opened on Tuesday amid a rush of customers, estimated to number about 1,000, many of whom took the time to pose for group pictures in front of the store sign.

The Tibetan KFC serves the same menu items as other restaurants in the franchise, but at a higher cost. A combo meal containing chicken wings, soda and French fries costs 40 yuan ($6.10) in Lhasa compared to 31 yuan in other Chinese cities.

The higher cost is attributed to flying in ingredients from Xi’an, Shaanxi, located some 2,900 kilometers away. Plans for a 4.67-hectare frozen storage facility to be built in a nearby suburb will allow for any future expansions.

The Tibet expansion comes after last year’s food scandal in which a local supplier was caught supplying tainted meat to restaurants like KFC, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut. Parent company Yum! Foods had previously attempted to expand into Tibet in 2004 with KFC, but had called it off saying it wasn’t “economically feasible”. At the time, staunch vegetarian the Dalai Lama had written a letter voicing his objection to KFC, referencing the “sufferings of chickens”.

Other concerns arising from a KFC in Tibet cited the dangers the local culture faces from assimilation as more Han Chinese continue to relocate in the area.

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“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 Alistair Currie of the London-based Free Tibet organization.

“The onus is on Yum! to show that its commitment to the community is not tokenistic and superficial,” Currie said. “They haven’t done that yet.”

A first glance makes it seem as though the new KFC in Lhasa caters more to Chinese customers than to locals. The restaurant menu is written in Chinese, as are writings on the store windows. Furthermore, the store opening is accompanied by a number of floral arrangements as is in keeping with Han Chinese traditions.

But despite these concerns, a number of people are saying that KFC is a proponent of change, and that change is good.

According to store manager Yu Zhengqing, KFC is committed to providing equal opportunity to the community. “Recruitment is continuing,” Yu said. “Eventually, we hope the ratio between local ethnic Tibetan employees and non-Tibetans is even.”

At the moment, the Lhasa KFC outlet currently has 40 employees, of which half are from Tibet. Only eight of those are ethnic Tibetans.

Former deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Tibet Basangluoshi thinks the introduction of KFC to Tibet can only serve as a positive development. “The introduction of KFC into Tibet is a good thing for cultural exchange and blending,” he said. “Not only does this bring new flavors and experiences, but more importantly, it promotes the exchange of two cultures from different regions.”

Western fast food has sometimes been viewed by Chinese as bad influence, responsible for turning people fat or into “morons“. But its also a source of nostalgia for Han majority Chinese who have grown up with it.

Yang Yanfang, a 23-year-old civil servant from Yunnan province who is working on a two-year project in Lhasa, considers KFC as part of his own upbringing that has followed him to Tibet. “It offers another pleasant dining choice for young people from the inland area like me who grew up with frequent treats of chicken and sandwiches,” said Yang.

Maybe we can’t put too much significance upon the opening of just one store in one area. And yet, Xinhua wrapped up its reporting on the first KFC in Tibet by concluding the following:

An ancient and mysterious Tibet is now relaxing its stance and quickly embracing the world.

Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor