KFC Wants to Bring Its Fried Chicken to Tibet

The Lhasa location will be a big one: a two-story, 540-square-meter fried chicken mothership. And needless to say, not everyone is happy about it.

Dec 15 2015, 12:00am

Photo via Flickr user Dennis Jarvis

When an image of Tibet forms in the mind's eye, mountains loom and vast plains dotted with yaks extend off into the distance. A monastery is perched precariously upon a crag, gleaming in the sun. Colored prayer flags flap in the wind.

Now imagine a KFC.

The two don't pair particularly well, but the Colonel has his sights set on Tibet and plans to open the first KFC in the region in Tibet's capital, Lhasa. One group is calling for Yum! Brands, KFC's parent corporation, to proceed with caution, fearing it could damage Tibet's already at-risk culture.

"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," Alistair Currie of the London-based Free Tibet said.

The KFC is planned as part of a broader push in China by Yum!, whose holdings include KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. KFC and Pizza Hut are popular in China, but they have experienced slowing sales after a string of food safety scandals. Yum! plans to open roughly 13,000 new restaurants in China, where its 6,900 restaurants currently account for more than half of the company's operating profits.

Photo via Flickr user avlxyz

Photo via Flickr user avlxyz

Food Navigator Asia reports that the Lhasa location will be a big one: a two-story, 540-square-meter fried chicken mothership in a downtown shopping mall, where other fast food restaurants have already set up shop. A 4.67-hectare frozen storage facility will be built in a nearby suburb to prepare for future expansion. Yum! says that the first KFC will "incorporate local design elements, provide employment opportunities, and support the development of the regional supply chain."

Free Tibet thinks that KFC needs to prove they have Tibet's best interest in mind.

"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."

KFC considered coming to Tibet in 2004, but ultimately cancelled the plans amidst opposition to the proposed store, saying that a store was not economically feasible. The Dalai Lama, the most famous Tibetan and the world's most famous vegetarian, spoke out against the plan at the time and released a letter of opposition published by PETA.

"I have been particularly concerned with the sufferings of chickens for many years," he wrote in the letter. "It was the death of a chicken that finally strengthened my resolve to become vegetarian.

"These days, when I see a row of plucked chickens hanging in a meat shop, it hurts."

Most Tibetans are not vegetarians, and yak is regularly eaten in Tibet. In his letter, the Dalai Lama said that Tibetans believe in slaughtering animals humanely and eating larger animals so that fewer animals are killed for food.

"While we haven't received a letter from His Holiness, we understand he's a strict vegetarian so it doesn't surprise us that he's opposed to eating chicken," Yum spokesperson Jonathan Blum told USA Today at the time.

This time, KFC is poised to move forward, a sign of Western—and Chinese—influences entering into the region. Chinese tourists flock to Tibet, and some critics have lamented the "Disneyification" of Tibetan culture, with Tibetans a curiosity to Chinese tourists. China has ruled Tibet since 1959, and the Dalai Lama has been living in exile ever since.

If KFC is doubling down on its expansion plans in the region, there may be no stopping the Colonel. Tibetans can voice approval or opposition with their wallets, but it may be a challenge. After all, KFC can be addictive.