Just as in Burma last year, the Tibetan protests seem to have ended in a short-term victory for official repression. But in the longer term, Tibet’s prospects are not so grim. China has taken real steps towards openness and democracy in recent years, and if that process continues then the days of imperial rule in Tibet and Xinjiang are numbered.

A recurring theme, however, in the last few days’ coverage has been that the common people in China are hostile to the Tibetans, and therefore a democratic China would be equally (if not more) imperialistic. This is probably inspired in part by a general view, often held by “enlightened” intellectuals, that the masses are naturally conservative and xenophobic – the myth of “Howard’s battlers” was a local echo of this idea.

But such views have been repeatedly falsified throughout history. If we know anything about how empires work, we know that in the long run democracy and decolonisation go together.

Certainly the masses may have xenophobic prejudices. They may be prone to fits of imperialistic enthusiasm. But they are ultimately unwilling to pay the costs of keeping a hostile population in subjection.

Dictatorship has no such problem.

Hence it was the more progressive and democratic forces in British politics that dismantled both the first and second British empires. It was a democratic revolution in Portugal in the 1970s that led to the independence of its colonies, and democracy in Indonesia that finally conceded independence to East Timor. And of course the breakup of the Soviet empire was inseparable from its movement away from dictatorship.

I’m old enough to remember media commentary on the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s, when so-called “experts” assured us that the dissidents, principled and courageous though they might be, were deeply unpopular among ordinary Russians. But when those ordinary Russians finally got a chance to express their views free from state control, the reality turned out to be very different.

There is every reason to think China will go the same way. As long as the authorities are watching every move and controlling the flow of information, it is not surprising that ordinary people express safely orthodox opinions (the BBC has a selection here). But when democracy finally comes, expect Tibet to be one of its many beneficiaries.

Peter Fray

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