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 What Was Bill Gates Thinking Selling Tank Man Image to China? (Posted: 01/27/2016)

Corbis Tank Man screenshotYou've probably heard that Bill Gates recently sold the image archives and licensing business of his company Corbis to a Chinese company, Visual China Group, based in Beijing.

It would be nothing if this was just another business transaction, but it is not. It would also be nothing if all the images were non-political, but they are not. Among the millions of photos Corbis owned, now owned by Visual China Group, are the most political ones of them all: those of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing in the spring of 1989, including the iconic Tank Man, a young man with shopping bags standing in front of, and stopping, a column of tanks of the People’s Liberation Army ordered to clear the square of demonstrators.

Christoph Rehage, a visual artist, told CNN Money, that the real problem was the potential for digital censorship. If you log onto Corbis, he continued, and try to look for identical search terms in English and Chinese, you would get different results.

He was right. CNN Money tried by typing first Tiananmen and then the Chinese characters for Tiananmen into Corbis Images' search engine. They got a few results of the protests with the English search, but only photos of celebrities for the Chinese search.

Corbis Tiananmen English search screenshotThis writer tried, too. Searching “Tiananmen 1989,” it returned 1,556 results, of mostly Tiananmen protests-related images on 8 pages, including the one of Tank Man on the first page. However, searching the same thing in Chinese, “天安门1989,” it returned a total of two results, one showing a sea level sign and another an adult and a child, absolutely nothing to do Tiananmen.

Corbis Tiananmen Chinese search screenshotEven though in a separate deal with Visual China Group, Getty Images got the rights to license and distribute of those photos worldwide, except in China, it won't matter, as the censorship is already on at Corbis, even if a user is in the U.S.

One now wonders about the fate of not only of those Tiananmen images, those bloody images, but also the protestors in those images, those still living in China where Tiananmen 1989 is not allowed to be remembered or talked about in public.

With all my respect for Bill Gates, for all he has done for the world with his Microsoft and Gates Foundation, I do not understand this deal. It is almost like sending a Tiananmen student leader in exile in the U.S. back to China to be arrested.

The best way to describe my reaction to this strange deal is perhaps this Chinese proverb: 一世聪明,一时糊涂, meaning someone can be smart all his life, but stupid in one moment.