Leading article: The goal of freedom that is shared across the world

Christmas is, of course, a celebration far older than Christianity, a midwinter feast in which people could lift themselves out of the gloom of the present season and look forward towards the spring to come.

In international affairs one could, at this moment, face either direction. There is certainly plenty to shiver about as bombers kill some 40 people in Damascus, the Chinese authorities sentence a leading liberal writer, Chen Wei, to nine years' imprisonment for essays urging political freedom, and more than 40,000 Russians sign up for what promises to be the biggest election protest so far in Moscow tomorrow. And the Arab Spring, it could all-too easily be said, has turned to barren winter in Egypt and Libya as well as Yemen and Bahrain.

But the alternative view – and, we would argue, the more compelling one – acclaims the fact that the Arab Spring has happened at all. There were plenty of experts who said the Arab world never could and never would rise up against corrupt regimes, let alone that the revolution would be led by ordinary people taking to the streets out of a simple and deeply felt frustration with the way the system was. Still fewer would have said that, after a year of uncertain and differing results, that same spirit would still keep people protesting despite every effort to crush them, and that the disquiet would spread out to Russia, China, Central Asia and, if you include recent anti-corruption protests, even to India.

Of course, all these developments are not alike, let alone part of some grand global political or social movement. Indeed, one of the extraordinary things about them is how disparate they are. This is not some kind of disciplined grab for power, as happened in the communist revolutions of the last century. Nor are we witnessing the products of economic change. The peasant protests against land seizures, house demolitions and river damming in China are reactions against such change, while the uprisings in North Africa are the expressions of people's wanting to participate in it.

All these movements, however, do share some themes. First and foremost is the demand for freedom. It is too easy for those in the West to put this down to a simple call for democracy. But it is more complex and in some ways more nebulous than that. A demand for free and fair elections is part of it. But much of the frustration is also directed against the monopoly of economic power exercised by authoritarian regimes. "Down with corruption" is the one common cry in the Red Square of Moscow, the villages of Guandong, and Cairo's Tahir Square. And although social networks have played a key part in giving the movements such logistical organisation as they have, they have not directed them, let alone disciplined them.

That lack of regimentation has sadly made it easier for determined regimes to fight back. In Syria, the government has used brute force and fear. In China, Beijing has split the opposition, clamping down on middle-class intellectuals who want political freedom while negotiating with the peasantry who demand freedom from economic suppression.

At this stage, no one knows how the past year's rash of public protests will turn out – in the toppling of regimes as in Tunisia, in civil war and Western intervention as in Libya, or in the brutal oppression of Syria. But, as the Czechs buried Vaclav Havel, the leader of their Velvet Revolution, yesterday, it is worth remembering just what people power can achieve. As he is honoured, and we unwind for Christmas, we should applaud the courage of all the ordinary men and women taking to the streets around the globe.