Monday, January 17, 2005

A Day to Honor Heroes

"And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time when the country celebrates a great and influential man (whose name is Robert E. Lee, say some Southerners). Today, as grateful students who get the day off from school will tell you, we honor Dr. King's legacy of peace, justice, and equality. Dr. King, however, is not the only champion of liberty whose life is worth reflecting on today.

Zhao Ziyang, former Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party passed away this morning. His short reign in the late 1980s witnessed an openness and limited government without precedent in totalitarian China. Ziyang, a reformist leader once seen as the heir to Deng Xiaoping, was ultimately purged for his sympathy to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In a famous photograph, Ziyang is shown pleading with the student protestors to give up their efforts, saying "I have come too late" to prevent the violent crackdown that would ensue. Shortly afterward, Ziyang was stripped of his titles.

For the rest of his life, he remained under house arrest, hidden by a government too fearful of the very power of Zhao's name to influence would-be reformers. Xinhua, China's state news agency, devoted a scant few sentences to his passing in its English-language report, referring to him only as "Comrade Zhao" and avoiding mention of his leadership posts. TIME's excellent profile on Zhao Ziyang, "The Prisoner of Conscience", summed it up best: "Zhao sealed his fate with an act of courage unseen among China's totalitarian leaders before or since—he broke ranks." China, had Ziyang remained at the helm, would no doubt look very different from what we see now.

Also, it was sixty years ago to this day that Raoul Wallenberg disappeared into the hands of his Soviet captors. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat whose ingenuity and courage during WWII saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Sadly, near the war's end in January 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by the Red Army on the allegation that he was an American spy. According to the Soviets, Wallenberg died in captivity in 1947, though other accounts state that Wallenberg was alive in Siberian or Russian prisoners at least through the 1960s.

In 1981, Raoul Wallenberg became only the 5th person ever to be accorded with the status of Honorary Citizen of the United States. No critically-acclaimed Spielberg movie was ever made about him, but there is no question that his bravery is an inspiration to us all.

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