Anti-American protesters stormed KFC locations in at least eleven Chinese cities this weekend to protest a ruling against China’s South China Sea claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, a verdict Beijing claims Tokyo and Washington manipulated in tandem.
Protesters holding banners reading slogans like “Get out of China, KFC and McDonalds” and “What you eat is American KFC; what is lost is the face of our ancestors” congregated outside of KFC locations in major urban centers in China this weekend and into Monday, harassing patrons and urging them not to give their money to an American franchise. “Love the Chinese nation,” the protesters demanded of fried chicken fans.
Videos and images on the Chinese social media site Weibo show protesters waving flags and surrounding patrons while chanting calls for a boycott. The protesters called for boycotts of American, Japanese, South Korean, and Philippine products in response to the ruling. Online, Chinese nationals have begun to post videos of themselves smashing Apple iPhones as a protest against that American company, as well. While Beijing has done little to stoke public distrust of KFC, the Chinese government has actively targeted Apple, banning new iPhone models nationwide on the allegation that they had plagiarized product designs from Chinese companies.
On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the plaintiff in Philippines vs. China. The Chinese government has claimed most of the South China Sea, including parts of the sovereign territory of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia, as well as the waters off Natuna Island in Indonesia. The court ruled that no precedent exists to bolster China’s claims that Beijing has controlled the region “since ancient times” and ordered the Chinese government to stop preventing international ships from passing through the region as well as cease construction of military assets on reefs in the Spratly and Paracel Islands and the Scarborough reef.
China has responded by threatening to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, forcing all aircraft to receive permission from Beijing to fly through the area, as well as blaming Japan and the United States for the verdict. While encouraging “dialogue” with the new government of the Philippines, Chinese media have called Japanese and American officials “eunuchs” who have no claim to any of the waters of the region.
While Japan has no claims in the South China Sea, Tokyo claims the East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese government placed an ADIZ over in 2013. Following a declaration from President Barack Obama that any military action against Japanese aircraft in the region would require the U.S. to attack China by treaty, the ADIZ has gone largely unheeded.
The United States, meanwhile, has no claims in the region but has repeatedly demanded China not hinder freedom of navigation in one of the world’s richest trade routes. The U.S. Navy has conducted two high-profile Freedom of Navigation exercises in the sea — in October 2015 and February 2016 — sparking the ire of senior Chinese military officials and state-run media.
The state propaganda condemnation of the United States has led Chinese citizens to swarm one of the most prominent American institutions in their country: KFC. The fried chicken chain is considered such a cornerstone of American culture in Asia that, in Japan, many buy specialty family meals from KFC on Christmas, confusing fried chicken for the roast Turkey many Americans traditionally eat for the holiday. KFC is typically eager to indulge the association.
Now the target of protests, a spokesperson for the chain tells the LA Times that they are the “victims” of confusion. “The people who are doing this don’t understand what being patriotic really is,” the spokesperson said, asserting KFC had “done nothing wrong” and had no association to the Hague case. The newspaper notes that China is KFC’s single “largest source of revenue.”