YERMO — A sculptor who has chipped statues for US political leaders, a British knight, and the Dalai Lama unveiled his newest job in unincorporated Yermo in a politically charged event centered around Sunday, the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Weiming Chen, who left China three decades ago and describes New Zealand as his home, was joined by a variety of Chinese separatists, US-based opponents of communism and armed security guards Sunday to introduce the roughly 30-foot-tall statue “CCP Virus” II” at his open-air High Desert art center called Liberty Sculpture Park.
A depiction of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping proteins, the sculpture features a massive skull with COVID-19 spike for hair, red-paint splatters representing blood, and the hammer and sickle, a symbol used by communists.
In 2021, Chen roll rolled out a similar depiction of Jinping, leader of China’s government and the Chinese Communist Party. But Chen and his team allege that China “sent…spies (to) attack that sculpture several times, and finally, burn it down” last year, referencing the fire that burned down the first “CCP Virus” sculpture, which the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department told the Daily Press its deputies responded to on the evening of July 23, 2021.
The person or people behind that inferno remain unconfirmed, but federal complaints unsealed by the US Department of Justice in March accused two individuals of “conspiring to act as agents of the (People’s Republic of China) government” of harassing Chen and imply they’re behind the fire.
The DOJ, in a March 16 press release, said the two alleged perpetrators are residents of New York — Fan “Frank” Liu, 62, and Matthew Ziburis, 49.
Liu and Ziburis, among other things, “made plans to destroy the artwork of a dissident artist whose work is critical of the PRC government,” the DOJ’s release alleged, “and the artist’s sculpture depicting Jinping as a coronavirus molecule was demolished in… 2021 .”
The Chinese government denies the allegations, previously telling the Los Angeles Times, “The accusation of ‘transnational repression schemes’ is totally made out of thin air. The US attempt to hype up ‘China threat’ and tarnish China’s reputation is doomed to fail.”
Standing up against dictators
Chen’s updated sculpture is a bit taller than the original work, at about 30-feet tall and far sturdier than the first iteration — which now sits in charred rubble beside its replacement after being burnt down soon after its unveiling a year ago.
“The CCP regime hate(s) and cannot stand freedom and human rights, and here you can see the evidence of CCP evil,” a translator for Chen told the crowd of at least a few dozen people Sunday.
“Whatever they do cannot stop us,” the translator continued with bombast. “We shall not (be) afraid of them, and we shall never quit fighting.”
A drone strapped with a camera hovered over Liberty Sculpture Park at the Sunday unveiling.
A security team of volunteers roamed the crowd throughout Sunday’s event, said Lise King, spokesperson for Liberty Sculpture Park.
At least three men wore police-style uniforms, one of whom was clad head-to-toe in SWAT armor with what appears to have been both a Taser and a handgun strapped to his hip.
Each individual wore a laminated nametag with a graphic of Chen’s new sculpture, marked as “STAFF,” and donned various logos on their uniforms.
The SWAT-armored man, identified on his nametag as Alex, on his left arm wore a patch that read “free helicopter rides for communists,” with a graphic of a person being thrown from a helicopter, and a patch that appeared to be the Taiwanese flag with a thin blue line across the center and on his right arm, a patch with a lightning bolt at the center of a shield-shaped outline; and a bulletproof vest with Chinese lettering on the back and a Taiwan flag on the front.
A more modestly police-uniformed man wore a hat that read “The Stronach Group,” an Ontario, Canada-based investment company whose most prominent holding is a horse racing firm. He donned a patch on his arm that read, “Master’s Patrol Private Security.”
The presence of security, according to Chen’s colleagues, was meant to protect the sculptor and his work from attempts at sabotage or something worse.
In a recent blog post, Chen wrote that on May 25, “someone went to the Sculpture Park in vain to attempt to destroy it again and was immediately arrested.” A post earlier that day on the same blog, which appears to be sourced from Radio Free Asia, describes the same incident but says it occurred May 5.
Yet, the Sheriff’s Department gave a more modest description of the incident when asked about each article.
On May 24, Sheriff’s spokesperson Mara Rodriguez told the Daily Press, “there was a report of a possible break-in of the donation box at Liberty Sculpture Park.”
“A short time later, another call was received that a subject was at the park and actively trying to break into the donation box,” she continued in an email. “Upon arrival, deputies spoke with the subject benefits at the park who reported having mistakenly placed his public assistance card in the box the day before. He was reportedly trying to retrieve his card. The subject did not gain access to the donation box. The situation was resolved without arrest.”
A stronger protest sculpture
Chen’s newest anti-CCP statue is made with steel rebar, a far stronger material than his first version. The construction process took about seven months, his team says, and cost more than $50,000.
Half of that cost was covered by a New York-based nonprofit, the Human Rights Foundation.
Thor Halvorssen, who founded the HRF in 2005, joined the event Sunday, after 16 hours of flying from work he was doing in the Middle East, he said.
Halvorssen wants to spread Chen’s work far beyond the High Desert to multiple continents to expand the influence of his message — though he told the Daily Press it may be best to start with less politically-charged Chen pieces, he said.
“If anyone wants a brief understanding of the difference between the red boot of the Chinese dictatorship and a free country, it’s this straightforward definition,” Halvorssen alleged in a speech to the crowd. “China gave us the virus; freedom gave us the vaccine.”
How to attend
Liberty Sculpture Park, 37570 Yermo Road, Yermo, features an assortment of pro-liberty and anti-communist art just west of the Eddie World convenience store, directly between northbound Interstate 15 and the Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow’s Yermo Annex.Information: (253) 221-9338
Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the US and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.