Reporter’s Notebook: The June 4 Vigil in the Mojave Desert

After the heat of the day, the Mojave Desert was cool and breezy at night. Chen Weiming’s white camper was parked in the middle of a silent sand, the evening breeze blew into the dark cab through the slightly rolled down windows, and Chen Weiming, who had been busy all day, was lying on the flat seat, and it was not easy to fall asleep comfortably. On his right hand side, a black Glock pistol with a loaded magazine was placed.

This is how sculptor Chen has spent every night for the past few weeks. His “Freedom Sculpture Park,” built along busy Interstate 15 in the small town of Yermo in California’s Mojave Desert region, sits on a vast expanse of scrubby sand that was built in 2017. The park is sparsely populated with sculptures based on the 89 Tiananmen Square incident and China’s pro-democracy movement: a large stainless steel 64 monument, tank men, and Hong Kong protesters against sending China to China. Each sculpture was made with the blood and sweat of Chen Weiming and the volunteers who helped him.

As this year’s June 4th anniversary approached, there were incidents of vandalism in the normally unguarded park.

The first time a memorial plaque was removed from the park, the second time a security camera line was cut, the third time the lighting system was vandalized, and the fourth time an intruder wandered into the park at night when Chen Weiming ran into him and promptly drove away.

In order to ensure that the June 4 commemorative activities planned for the park would go smoothly, he kept vigil in the park every night, along with his volunteers. Since the park opened, there has never been a succession of multiple acts of vandalism like the recent ones, and they are concerned about the escalation this year.

“Usually in the U.S. this gun and ammunition has to be separated and put behind the (car),” Chen Viming said, pointing to the gun at hand. “This (park) is also our private property when all is said and done, we bought it, so we can defend ourselves if there is a situation.”

If there is a particular piece of work in the park that needs to be protected, it is the “Chinese Communist Virus” that has just been completed.

The fiberglass sculpture took seven months to build. The sculpture is based on the shape of a new coronavirus, with the scarlet protein that causes the disease glaringly red. The spherical portion of the virus features a portrait of Chinese leader Xi Jinping on one half and a skull representing death on the other, with the sickle and axe symbol of the Chinese Communist Party carved into the side of the skull. The sculpture refers to the hiding and inaction of Xi Jinping and the Chinese authorities in the early stages of the new crown outbreak, which led to the spread of the epidemic around the world and claimed countless lives. The work has been completed and was officially unveiled on June 4 Memorial Day.

At each vigil, Chen Weiming and several other volunteers parked their cars by the side of the “Chinese Communist virus. Jonas, who has been serving at the sculpture park since last September, said he is in a light sleep every night and may wake up if there is a significant change in the lights on the highway or at a nearby gas station in the distance.

Jonas, who has a background in security training and knows many friends in the U.S. military, said the recent vandalism appears to be organized, not necessarily individual. He said the odds are that the vandals targeting the June 4-themed sculpture park are Chinese. There are few Chinese in the Yermo neighborhood, and the intruders are more likely to have come from Los Angeles, a two-hour drive away. They were bold enough to venture onto private land to engage in illegal activities, and perhaps had strong backers behind them who could commit resources regardless of cost.

Although they do not have direct evidence, both he and Chen Weiming speculate that the Chinese Communist Party may be behind this.

Jonas, who is in his early thirties, is one of a skeleton crew of about four volunteers, and the youngest member, who also specializes in video filming and mechanical equipment repair. He says learning skills in different fields helps keep life fresh. On the night this reporter stayed to document the vigil, he was taking images of the “CCP virus” he had just completed.

He provided lighting from above the sculpture via a remote-controlled drone as Chen Weiming and volunteer sculptor Su Li De stood in front of the sculpture, their red and blue shirts brightly colored against the black night sky as Jonas dispatched them. Under the faint white light cast by the drone, the sculpted face, composed of Xi Jinping’s image and a skeleton in the night, appeared grim and unforgiving.

Aside from Chen Weiming and a few key members, volunteers are always coming and going, mostly Chinese who have just arrived in the United States. Some simply hope to use their experience working here to help clear their political asylum applications, and their enthusiasm for preserving the memory of June 4 and critiquing China’s authoritarian system may not be particularly enduring. Not long ago, a volunteer who was participating in a vigil for the first time had to be picked up after learning of the possibility of a shooting in the least desirable scenario and was too worried to remain in the park.

In contrast, the skeleton volunteers who have stuck around to help all year long have stayed true to their philosophy. Due to factors such as age and geographic location, they did not experience the Tiananmen Square incident firsthand, but only gradually learned the truth through the information they acquired later. For them, June 4 was a shattering of ideals, and they do not expect anything from the Chinese government, but only wish to preserve history and sustain accountability.

Chen Weiming’s investment in the sculpture and sculpture park came entirely from donations and private spending. He jokes that his earlier work on the sculptures in China and later in the United States was “taking money” – in China he took money from others and put it in his own pocket, in the United States he took money out of his own pocket to cover expenses. He and the volunteers usually live in a farmhouse 10 minutes away from the park, where they work to exhaustion in the 40-degree Celsius sun every day and sleep in Chen’s farmhouse at night. The number of bedrooms is limited, so some volunteers sleep in the living room or outdoors.

On the night when the reporter stayed in the park, Chen Weiming was the only one guarding the “Chinese Communist virus” at first. At midnight, Jonas returned to his car to join the vigil after finishing his work such as filming.

Having lived in the U.S. for more than a decade, he identifies himself as a “Libertarian” who promotes personal responsibility, self-discipline, small government, and the right to bear arms. After meeting Feng Congde, one of the June Fourth student leaders, he began to participate in the pro-democracy movement.

As the only one of the volunteers who is fluent in both Chinese and English, he is happy and willing to help in the outreach aspect of the sculpture park. He admits that, overall, not many pro-democracy activists are bilingual, which creates obstacles for them to interact and cooperate with the American mainstream. So, he hopes to help out as much as he can.

By the end of Jonas’ conversation, it was 4 a.m. Trucks were passing by on the highway, and the neon lights of the gas station not far away were shining. The soft night breeze was still blowing, the clear and transparent sky above the desert was covered with stars, and a golden crescent moon was hanging in the east.