By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
A year after the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, Tiananmen Square was a preternaturally quiet place. Unlike the heart of Beijing today, bicycles and pigeons outnumbered cars and people. The only exception to the calm was a bustling corner near the square: the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.
With a pocketful of the special currency then reserved for foreigners, I was able to cut ahead of the masses and order a chicken dinner in the summer of 1990. Having spent weeks in the country struggling to order food, and often severely regretting the outcome, I found the gleaming 12,000 square-foot KFC offered a certain security. It may not have been fine dining, but its taste was predictable, the price economical and its digestion relatively assured.
KFC parent Yum Brands would never articulate its strategy in this way. But those qualities explain the company’s extraordinary success in the nearly three decades since “the Colonel” installed its first deep fryer in China. KFC and its cousin Pizza Hut have earned respect – and lavish riches for shareholders – in the Middle Kingdom not simply by currying favor with Beijing but by doing good business, and providing innovations China’s central planners want, like a safe food chain.
Yum China boss Jing-Shyh “Sam” Su can take credit for that success, something few other companies have managed to achieve in China outside of the joint ventures through which Western companies usually do business. Su became a marketing executive in 1989. Today he sits on Yum’s board. Last year he even earned more than Yum Chief Executive David Novak.