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.
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. Gao had never heard of 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 in Harbin.
“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 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.
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. However, 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 Japanese 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 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs 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 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 Lu Chao, a researcher at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang. “So this thing is out of the ordinary.”
The exhibit is part of a larger geopolitical tug of war as the US attempts to force its squabbling allies — South Korea and Japan — to put up a united front in its battle for influence with China.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye asked Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to honor her country’s hero during a meeting in Beijing in June last year.
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 Ahn made his mark). The occupation was brutal, with Japan insisting Koreans take Japanese names and forcing many into hard labor.
However, Park has been particularly frosty toward 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. 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.
Xi, who like the South Korean leader has refused to meet with Abe, quickly set about fulfilling 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 the US’ two most important Asian allies.
The memorial certainly attracted the attention of the Abe government. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called Ahn “a terrorist” soon after it opened.
The memorial, by contrast, depicts Ahn as a scholarly, serious and brave freedom fighter.
He was 29, well-educated (in Confucian classics) and was a member of the armed resistance against Japan when he decided to kill Ito, a four-time prime minister, and in Japanese history, generally depicted as a reformer.
Before the assassination in 1909, 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 Ahn learned that Ito was planning to visit Harbin, then a boom town, to meet with the then-Russian finance minister Vladimir Kokovtsov to discuss their countries’ competing interests in Manchuria after the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.
After shooting Ito three times in the chest at close range, 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,” an inscription under a photo of Ahn at his trial says.
Hua Zhengfeng, 36, a Chinese sports trainer, visited the memorial on a recent Sunday and exuded confidence about China’s trajectory.
He said that he admired Ahn but 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,” Hua said. “Japan is not dangerous now; Japan only flees. Compared to China, Japan is comparatively weak.”