In a prison cell in the province of Sichuan, a 54-year-old Tibetan lama awaits execution. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was convicted two years ago of causing explosions in Sichuan and sentenced to death. His sentence was deferred for two years, but when the deferment expired on 2 December, Tenzin Delek became eligible for execution. His co-accused, Lobsang Dhondup, was executed in January 2003, on the very day he lost his appeal to the Sichuan Provincial Court.
The trial of both men was a judicial farce. No evidence was produced to link the men to any crime. Their lawyers were not allowed to attend. Even by China's lamentable judicial standards, it was a travesty. Tenzin Delek is a respected monk who is well known for his charitable work. His real crime appears to be his loyalty to the Dalai Lama who, despite more than 30 years in exile, retains the devotion of many Tibetans. China's dilemma for more than 50 years has been how to transform the military occupation of Tibet into a stable political order, given that few Tibetans seem willing to give Beijing their loyalty or affection.
China has tried many different strategies from outright repression to attempted negotiation, but Tibetans remain, on the whole, stubbornly ungrateful for the privilege of being occupied by China. Yet the latest strategy - to encourage Chinese colonisation and to promote economic development in the hope that Tibetan culture will be obliterated, and with it Tibetan memory - may succeed in the long term: a similar approach in territories such as Inner Mongolia has all but erased the culture of the original inhabitants.
Over the past 14 months, Beijing has revived contact with the government in exile, raising hopes of a negotiated return for the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans who might still wish to return, but the exchanges proceed with glacial slowness and have not yet led to substantive discussions. Such discussions, the Chinese government insists, cannot take place until two conditions are met: that the Dalai Lama renounce his claim for independence for Tibet, something he did nearly 20 years ago and has frequently reiterated since, and that he declare that Taiwan is a part of China, which he might legitimately regard as a matter in which he has little standing. It is difficult to regard such demands as anything other than tactics designed to obstruct and delay.
Despite the hopes initially raised by these contacts, it remains highly improbable that the Chinese government's idea of "return" would include letting the Dalai Lama live in Tibet: the tenth Panchen Lama, who died in 1989, had not been allowed to live in Tibet since the early 1960s. Beijing's longer-term plan is to wait until the Dalai Lama dies, in the hope that, without this high-profile reminder of Tibet's history, culture and past political status, the issue will simply fade.