China’s Mini-Museum Honoring an Assassin of a Japanese Politician: Part of an Anti-Japan Campaign, Reflects an Escalating Feud

By
The New York Times

HARBIN, China — Gao Yuxai, 26, bundled up in turquoise down and brown fur against the subzero temperatures of China’s northeast, darted around a display of sepia photographs on the walls of an old waiting room at the railway station here.

Smartphone aloft to snap photos, she was transfixed by the story unfolding before her.

The exhibit cataloged the life of Ahn Jung-geun, a young Korean nationalist, who more than 100 years ago, assassinated an aging Japanese politician, the first overseer of Japan’s colony in Korea. Ms. Gao had never heard of Mr. Ahn — not many in China have — but she was impressed by his daring, striking at Japan by shooting the politician, Hirobumi Ito, at the rail station.

“I’m indignant at Japan, and this man is a hero,” she said. “The things Japan has done lately has forced China and South Korea to launch an anti-Japanese campaign. This shows heroism has no borders.”

The Chinese government’s recently opened tribute to Mr. Ahn is more than just a historical exercise. In the escalating feud between China and Japan, the Chinese leadership is running an anti-Japanese public relations campaign at home and abroad that amplifies its case against Japan, once its colonizer — starting right here in Manchuria in 1931 — and now a lesser economic power anxious about China’s increasingly muscular maritime claims.

A  display at the Harbin railway station in China celebrating a Japanese leader’s assassin is one measure in a public relations effort. Adam Dean for The New York Times

Attempts by a newly emboldened China to claim islands and fishing areas long controlled by other nations in vast swathes of ocean have raised fears in several countries. But some of the worst tensions have erupted with Japan, which China has been trying to outmaneuver for months, in a dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

China’s public relations push has focused on what it says are Japan’s false claims to those islands, as well as the December visit by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to a controversial war shrine.

Dozens of Chinese ambassadors have criticized Japan in letters written to newspapers around the world. In one, the Chinese ambassador in London compared Japan to the evil Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. At home, a cartoon in The Global Times, a Chinese government-run populist newspaper, compared the Japanese to the Nazis, and relentless negative coverage of Japan has dominated the news programs of CCTV, the government channel.

The Foreign Ministry has also intensified its criticisms of the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. At a recent daily briefing for the press, the spokesman reminded everyone about Unit 731, the biological and chemical warfare research facility on the outskirts of Harbin used by the Japanese to conduct human experiments.

The complex is now a Harbin tourist attraction, a museum filled with crude medical equipment used by the Japanese.

The memorial to Mr. Ahn, unveiled at the rail station in the heart of the city last month, has struck a special chord.

“Previously there have been almost no sculptures or memorials for foreigners in Chinese territory,” said Lü Chao, a researcher at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang. “So this thing is out of the ordinary.”

The exhibit, in fact, is part of a larger geopolitical tug of war, as the United States attempts to force its squabbling allies, South Korea and Japan, to put up a united front in its battle for influence with China.

South Korea’s leader, President Park Geun-hye, asked President Xi Jinping of China to honor her country’s hero during a meeting in Beijing last June.

Relations between South Korea and Japan have never been warm. Tokyo declared Korea a protectorate in 1905, and officially annexed it in 1910 (a year after Mr. Ahn made his mark). The occupation was brutal, with Japan insisting Koreans take Japanese names and forcing many into hard labor.

But Ms. Park has been particularly frosty toward Mr. Abe, who has a long track record of trying to portray Japan’s wartime and imperial history with South Korea (and China) in a less negative light. Ms. Park has complained that, among other things, Tokyo has failed to fully own up to its actions against Korean and other women who were enslaved by the Japanese military as prostitutes during World War II.

Mr. Xi, who like the South Korean leader has refused to meet with Mr. Abe, quickly set about fulfilling Ms. Park’s request. The decision not only fits with the larger public relations push against Japan, it also allowed China, at least symbolically, to drive a wedge between America’s two most critical Asian allies.

The memorial attracted the attention of the Abe government, as the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, called Mr. Ahn “a terrorist” soon after it opened.

The memorial, by contrast, depicts Mr. Ahn as a scholarly, serious and brave freedom fighter.

He was 29, well educated (in Confucian classics), and a member of the armed resistance against Japan when he decided to kill Mr. Ito, a four-time prime minister, and in Japanese history, generally depicted as a reformer.

Before the assassination in 1909, Mr. Ahn and a group of fellow conspirators cut their fourth fingers and used the blood to write “Korean independence” in Chinese on a Korean national flag. He was then elected leader of the group of 12, which called itself the “Cut Finger Association.”

Accounts from the period say that Mr. Ahn learned that Mr. Ito was planning to visit Harbin, then a boom town, to meet with the Russian finance minister, Vladimir Kokovtsov, to discuss their countries’ competing interests in Manchuria after the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War.

After shooting Mr. Ito three times in the chest, Mr. Ahn was captured by Russian soldiers. He was handed over to the Japanese in Manchuria, put on trial and executed on Feb. 14, 1910.

“I didn’t do this as an individual, I did it as a soldier of the Korean Volunteer Army, and I did it for my motherland’s independence and for peace in the East,” says an inscription under a photo of Mr. Ahn at his trial.

Hua Zhengfeng, 36, a Chinese sports trainer wrapped in a mink coat, visited the memorial on a recent Sunday and exuded confidence about China’s trajectory.

He admired Mr. Ahn, he said, but said that unlike in those days, China was strong and, seemingly at odds with his government’s public relations push, no longer needed to worry about Japan.

“Ahn’s time was quite different to mine,” said Mr. Hua. “Japan is not dangerous now, Japan only flees. Compared to China, Japan is comparatively weak.”

Patrick Zuo and Bree Feng contributed research.

A version of this article appears in print on February 9, 2014, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: China Exhibit, Part of an Anti-Japan Campaign,

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One Response to “China’s Mini-Museum Honoring an Assassin of a Japanese Politician: Part of an Anti-Japan Campaign, Reflects an Escalating Feud”

  1. Harbinski! | In the Mouth of Mao-ness Says:

    […] while we were in Harbin, the New York Times ran a story (mirror here) about an exhibit at the train station in Harbin that commemorates and celebrates a young Korean […]

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