WA China Watch Digest Special!

Survey: Did Bill Gates make the right decision to sell Tiananmen images to China?

Corbis Tank Man sreenshot

By Wen Liu   Jan. 29, 2016

On Jan. 22, Bill Gates sold a large image archive owned by Corbis, his Seattle-based digital media company, to Visual China Group of Beijing. Among the images sold are those of the Tiananmen protests of 1989, including the iconic Tank Man, a young man standing in front of a column of tanks. According to CNN Money, Corbis said that the company carefully considered the future stewardship of the images and that selling the images would help it transition into an advertising agency focused on placing products in movies, TV and online.

Considering that Tiananmen 1989 is a censored subject in China, WA China Watch Digest asked our China hands and watchers and readers this question:

Do you think Bill Gates made the right decision to sell those Tiananmen images, especially Tank Man, to a Chinese company, and why?

Here are some of the answers in the order they were received:

Steve Harrell, Professor of Anthropology, UW:
This just shows that, however much Mr. Gates has done as a philanthropist, he's still a businessman first, and made a business decision uninformed by conscience or, probably, even by thinking through the implications. One at least hopes that there are enough copies of these images around that people can disregard copyright with impunity, and that the current owner will be too busy playing nice with the censors to sue for copyright infringement.

Larry Fuell, Director, Global Affairs Center, Shoreline Community College:
No. Lack of transparency in China, and role of the government in matters that we think of as being the exclusive domain of the private sector and markets. I do not know what "help it transition into an advertising agency focused on placing products in movies, TV and online" means.

Joe Borich, former president, Washington State China Relations Council:
I am puzzled as to why a Chinese company would want to buy the image. Why a private company would risk the wrath of the government by buying the image. We live in interesting times!

Pat Davis, former Port of Seattle Commissioner:
I am not sure I have enough information about this matter to answer intelligently.

Gordon (Guoping) Feng, graduate student, China Studies, UW:
I think it's OK to sell those Tiananmen images to a Chinese company, on the condition that all the images are already publicly available, like the Tank Man image. If these other images are not publicly available, then selling them to China has obviously sealed the fate of these otherwise instructional images.

John M. Fluke, Jr., Fluke Capital Management, LP:
To the extent that the images of this event remain publicly available, our interests are served. Bill Gate's right to sell assets to another party (even a Chinese company) should not be abridged. To the extent that this, or other rights are blocked by the U.S. government only serves to erode all citizens' rights as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. body of law passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. To restrict the rights of individuals to satisfy the sensibilities of a small subset of our population is antithetical to U.S. principles of individual freedom.

In any event, even if Visual China Group is compelled to eliminate the Tank Man photos from the Corbis collection, the images will continue to exist in many western photo collections in perpetuity.

A worthy long term objective for the WSCRC is to work diligently and adroitly to convince Beijing to make these images explicitly public in China (just as Germany has made their concentration camps into public monuments as a perpetual reminder to future generations to never ever allow such atrocities to happen again).

China would be the everlasting beneficiary of acknowledging this episode in its history and its commitment to moving toward a "government of the people, by the people and for the people!"

Carson Tavenner, Executive Director, The Tai Initiative:
Was it a decision, or a consequence?

Bart Fite, President, China Club of Seattle:
I wouldn’t read too much into this. While I’m sure the purchase was run through a CCP filter, the images are already censored in China but will remain available around the world. My understanding is that many of the images of Tiananmen (including Tank Man) are only licensed to Corbis by the image owner. Depending on the license terms, the owner may offer the image to others now or in the future.

When the Chinese government has the confidence to make these images available in China we will know things are moving in the right direction.

Dennis Su, retired architect:
Like there are award winning documentaries on all kinds of recent human conflict in the world that very few people care to know. Besides, the Tank Man is pretty much public domain now along with tons of variations floating around the internet. I alone have a few versions in my collection.

Jon Geiger, Director, Business Integration/Operations, Boeing Commercial Airplanes:
Yes Corbis made the right decision…. In this way Corbis has demonstrated the benefit of capitalism, free enterprise and property rights. It will be interesting to see if/how China plans to use the image and control its dissemination.

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)