China: Harbin’s Tribute to Anti-Japanese Hero Hints at Tensions

The morning of October 26th, 1909, Ito Hirabumi was returning to the train station in Harbin, the most important city in Northeastern China.  He had recently concluded a negotiation meeting with Tsarist Russia.  The Japanese Emperor had nominated him as Governor of Korea, and he had an impeccable pedigree to perform the role: a prince, samurai, and four-time prime minister.  Tokyo had assigned him the task of mediation after their victory.  In 1904-05, the Japanese military defeated Russia; it was the first time that an Asian country defeated a European power in a military conflict, a momentous event after the colonial destruction.  Soon, Japan’s tentacles would extend over their entire area of influence.  A weak, divided and backward China would soon be invaded, while Korea fell quickly under Japan’s heel: a protectorate since 1905 before formal annexation in 1910.

 The Korean resistance was concentrated in Harbin—city of intrigue, spy den, and melting pot of races and religions—where a martyr and symbol could also be found.  At the time, Ahn Jung-geun was a 29-year-old Korean soldier, educated in both Confucian philosophies and Christian texts.  The twelve members of the “Cut Finger Association” (they wrote “Korean Independence” on their national flag with blood from their ring fingers) had designated him as the perpetrator of Hirabumi’s assassination.  He drew his gun, aimed with precision, and killed him with a bullet to the chest and wounded three others.  Ahn was immediately captured by the Russian guard, subsequently delivered to the Japanese army, and hanged a few months later.

 In Korea, Ahn is respected as a hero in monuments and textbooks.  In any case, his name would have been reserved for elite academics overseas if China hadn’t decided to inaugurate an exhibit honoring him in Harbin’s train station.  Ahn’s relics are displayed in a dry and dramatic manner, and the historical-political climate that provoked the assassination is recreated.   Deference to the patriot is not surprising.  But, the choice of time is fodder for analysis.  After 115 years, the tribute to an anti-Japanese action is a puzzle piece falling into place in the Northern Asia-Pacific.

 Most likely, the exhibit was opened in response to a request from the South Korean Prime Minister, Park Geun-hye, to the Chinese government during her trip to Beijing last June.  Although they found themselves in different ideological camps during the Cold War—with the memory of the tragic Korean Civil War—the two countries were reunited by their resentment towards Japan, and for an interminable post-war period that never clarified the past.  Creating an exhibit seems to speculate on the Japanese Prime Minister’s trip to the Yasukuny shrine honoring the nation’s war heroes, including some recognized as war criminals.  In a worrying unification of intent for Tokyo and Washington, both Park and Xi have not met—or have refused to meet—Abe until now.  The entire complex of strategic relationships is up for discussion in a region where economic ambitions had concealed old wounds.  In this framework, Ahn’s exhibit—a hero fighting for freedom or a terrorist according to biased judgment—is only an indicator of dangerously escalating tensions.