Beijing (AFP) - Campaign groups warned US fast food giant KFC Wednesday over the opening of its first restaurant in Tibet, more than a decade after the chain's first attempt to establish a foothold ended in controversy.
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader and Nobel laureate, condemned the idea when it was first mooted, and critics said the firm needed to address human rights and environmental concerns.
Pictures of the red carpet opening posted online showed long lines at the restaurant, at 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 elated social media user.
China, which has controlled Tibet since the 1950s, has been accused of political and religious repression in the mainly Buddhist region, and more than 140 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire in recent years to protest its rule according to rights groups and reports, most of them dying.
But Beijing insists Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and that it has brought economic growth to the area.
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."
- 'Tokenistic and superficial' -
KFC first 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, Yum Brands says on its website.
The Lhasa KFC opened Tuesday, a woman from the Shenli Shidai shopping centre property rental department confirmed to AFP.
Yum declined to comment on the opening, but the company previously said it would "provide employment opportunities and support the development of the regional supply chain".
Images of the interior posted online showed a large image of the Potala Palace, the historic residence of the Dalai Lamas, and triangle motifs labelled with Tibetan mountain names in English, including Qomolangma, the local name 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 Currie of Free Tibet.
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 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".
In December, Xinhua reported that KFC also plans to build a 4.67-hectare frozen storage facility in Lhasa's suburbs "to prepare for further expansion in the region".