Tiananmen Square crackdown 30th anniversary
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Chen Weiming’s statue stands with a rendering of a Chinese tank in a sculpture park in Yermo, California. Photo: Eileen Guo

‘Tank Man’ statue rises in California desert park as democracy activists and Tiananmen survivors gather to mourn and remember

  • Chinese sculptor Chen Weiming is a driving force behind annual anniversary events as well as the park, which he bought with fellow activists in 2015
  • The US ‘is the world’s original example of the struggle for freedom and democracy’, says Chen, explaining the American symbolism throughout the ceremony
Eileen Guo

For an event marking a dark moment of modern Chinese history, there were a striking number of American flags.

One of them was wrapped tightly around the star of the show, a 2,000-pound statue of “Tank Man,” the unknown Beijing resident captured in the most iconic photo of the time, single-handedly staring down a column of tanks, grocery bags in hand.

On Monday, around 300 people descended on Liberty Sculpture Park in Yermo, California, a 36-acre strip of sand and sagebrush on the south side of the I-15 freeway halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, for the unveiling of the Tank Man sculpture in front of a replica tank, hastily built in just 10 days. The delivery of an actual tank, ordered online from Europe, was delayed for unexplained reasons.

Attendees came from as far as Toronto and as close as Yermo itself, which sent, among others, two community board members, two recently crowned beauty queens and a descendant of the native American Lakota chief Crazy Horse, who is also commemorated in the park with a 15-foot statue.

Sculptor Chen Weiming works on a tank he made out of styrofoam in preparation for a Tiananmen Square anniversary ceremony in Yermo, California. Photo: Los Angeles Times/TNS

The sculptor Chen Weiming, a Chinese New Zealander, was one of the driving forces behind the anniversary event and the park, which he bought with fellow democracy activists in 2015 for US$300,000.

Unlike most of the other event’s organisers, Chen had not participated in the 1989 democracy movement in China, having left for New Zealand a year earlier. It was Chen's absence from the demonstrations that has compelled him to participate in or organise some kind of commemoration every year since.

“If I was in China, I might have been one of the students that was killed,” he said on Tuesday.


In 2010, he sent to Hong Kong a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue assembled by students in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. The replica was briefly removed by Hong Kong authorities, and Chen was deported from the territory.

Xi urged to ‘re-evaluate’ Tiananmen crackdown by victims’ families

Supporters gave the statue its present home on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2012, Chen commemorated the June 4 anniversary with a re-enactment of the showdown between Chinese citizen and tank in New York’s Times Square.

And now in Yermo, where the sculptor also has a home, 30 years after the Chinese government ordered the military to open fire on peaceful protesters, Chen unveiled the Tank Man as his latest work.

It joins three other statues in the park. Along with the bust of Crazy Horse, there is a figure of student leader Li Wangyang, who was imprisoned for 21 years after Tiananmen before being released in 2012 and, days later, found dead in his hospital room in what was pronounced by Chinese investigators to be a suicide.

A sculpture signifying June 4 at a park in Yermo, California. Photo: Kyodo

Another piece added recently for the anniversary: a statue of the numbers “64,” 6.4 metres high and sitting on a 2.5m base, which signify the month and day of the killings.


Among the acknowledgements of the United States throughout Monday’s event, the Tank Man statue was wrapped in an American flag and then jointly unveiled by Yermo district board director Michael Cint and former student protester Fang Zheng, whose legs were crushed by a tank and later amputated.

Other symbols of America, as Chen and other organisers understand it, included a Native American blessing that opened the ceremony, followed by an English-language folk song about the protests, the singing of the US national anthem, a plane circling overhead with a banner that read “Do not forget” in Chinese and, later in the evening, a re-enactment of the evacuation of Tiananmen Square, with the evacuees symbolically taking refuge at the statue of Crazy Horse.

Tiananmen anniversary prompts raised security at Zhao Ziyang’s family home

“It is the world’s original example of the struggle for freedom and democracy,” said Chen, explaining the American symbolism and adding that, if it weren’t for the United States, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and other authoritarian regimes, would be able to operate much more freely.


Zhou Fengsuo, an organiser of the Yermo event who took part in the original student movement in 1989, also spoke from the stage.

“Here, we are not afraid of being detained because China is a place where the government owns the people, and here, in the US, the people own the government,” said Zhou, a senior physics major in 1989 and leader of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation.

After the bloody crackdown, he was the CCP’s fifth – of 21 – most wanted student leader. He was captured, imprisoned for a year and escaped to the United States in 1995.

Sheng Xue, another former protester who helped organise the commemoration, said of the sculpture park: “We chose this place because of its permanence.”


She was one of the earliest protesters to escape China, arriving in Canada in August 1989. She has lived in Toronto for 30 years and organised annual commemorative events. The one in Yermo, she said, was the largest in North America.

Zhou said Monday’s ceremony featured more “new witnesses here to discuss their experiences in 1989.”

“With even the youngest now in their 50s, there is a new urgency” to hear their stories, he said.


Zhang Deshi, 21, who is studying history at Mt San Antonio College outside of Los Angeles, was among a younger generation of Chinese attending Monday’s ceremony.

“I’ve always dreamed of attending an event like this,” he said as he held a banner reading “Do justice: reinvestigate June 4 Tiananmen Massacre” in one hand and a large American flag in the other.

How Tiananmen crackdown left a deep scar on China’s military psyche

For newcomers like Deshi as well as long-time activists, there was a sense of homecoming throughout the proceedings.

On the modest strip of desert on the side of a busy freeway, chosen partially because it was what the activists could afford to buy, the 206 known names of students killed – as collected by the group Tiananmen Mothers – have a home. They are now displayed on a plastic tarp on the back of the 64 statue’s base, and Chen has plans to engrave them into the stone.

Organisers also planted a semicircle of flags that bore the names of the universities that had lost students. They set out portraits – victims not only of Tiananmen, but of Chinese government oppression before and after – and laid out flowers and offerings of fruit.

The Tank Man statue is wrapped in a US flag before its unveiling on Monday. Photo: Eileen Guo

In the middle of the ceremony, they even brought out two statues, of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, China’s leaders at the time, kneeling and repentant as they would never be in real life. Some whipped them with a lash brought out for the purpose. One person attacked their downturned faces with well-aimed smacks, while others posed with one foot defiantly stepping on the shoulders of the effigies.

Said Zhou: “This is a place that, under very difficult circumstances, we have made into a base, and we hope that from here we can gather and concentrate our efforts before China democratises and we can finally return home.”

But that homecoming, as Zhou acknowledged, may not occur within the activists’ lifetimes.

So they have set more practical goals. In the next few years, they plan to expand the democracy movement’s physical and spiritual home in Yermo, building a permanent museum to Tiananmen –as well as adding more of Chen’s sculptures, not only of China’s freedom fighters, but others from around the world.