Buddhist to Businesses: Don't Ignore Tibet's Exiled Leaders
By David Kirkpatrick

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The Dalai Lama--spiritual leader of Tibet, head of its government in exile, and worldwide subject of veneration--has a few gentle words for business. For years he has written and spoken about personal ethics, urging individuals to think about the effects of their behavior on others. Now he has a similar message for corporations: Think about the impact you have when you do business in China or in Tibet, an area that China has occupied since 1949 and that human-rights groups have singled out for China's abuses.

In late June, His Holiness, as he's referred to by Buddhist followers, met with a small group of business leaders and Tibet supporters in Los Angeles. It was the first time he had ever formally discussed how corporate behavior could affect the situation in his native country. Organized by the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet (ICLT), the meeting was low key and, for many participants, confidential. FORTUNE was the only press organization invited.

The Dalai Lama made two main points. First, companies should consult with the country's exile government before launching new initiatives in Tibet. (The government is based in Dharamsala, India.) Few foreign companies now operate in Tibet, and most of those that do work with the Chinese government only. For example, Agip, the Italian oil company, has so far refused to talk to activists or the exile government about its gas exploration on the Tibetan plateau. But there are some signs that companies are taking heed. BP Amoco, facing pressure from Tibet supporters, has already withdrawn from participation in a Tibetan oil pipeline deal.

The Dalai Lama also suggested that businesses with operations in China use some of their financial leverage to raise awareness of the Tibet situation. He said, "Tell the Chinese, 'You have a problem, and we are doing business with you, therefore we have a problem.' That, I think, is very effective."

The meeting was a minor milestone that is more likely to establish a dialogue than to achieve any specific steps. "There are significant challenges for those of us who want to do business responsibly in China," says participant Sharon Cohen, who heads a human rights foundation launched by Reebok, which produces 40% of its shoes in China, worth $900 million at retail. Until now, Tibet hasn't been one of these challenges. But for some corporations, perhaps now it will be.

--David Kirkpatrick