Bill Gates has sold a set of iconic images to a Beijing firm—including of Tiananmen in 1989

Bill Gates at Davos, Jan. 2016.
Bill Gates at Davos, Jan. 2016.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, announced on Friday (Jan. 22) that he had sold a wealth of historic news, documentary, and artistic images to a Chinese company, Visual China Group.

The sale, of Corbis Entertainment’s licensing arm, means that some of the most iconic images in China’s modern history—and some of the most sensitive—will come under Chinese ownership. One of those is “Tank Man,” an infamous image of a lone protestor standing up to a column of tanks ahead of a government-led massacre in Beijing, in 1989.

A screenshot of some images in the Corbis library.
A screenshot of some images in the Corbis library.
Image: Accessed at corbisimages.com/

“The transaction strengthens our dominant position in China’s image industry, enhances our core competence in the global high-end image market, and marks a significant milestone on our journey of globalization,” said Amy Jun Liang, CEO of Visual China Group.

Since it was founded in 2000, Visual China Group has listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange and currently reports a market cap of 20.2 billion yuan ($3 billion). The purchase of Corbis’s licensing arm is not the company’s first investment in a Western photographic company. Last year, it led a $13 million investment round in 500px, a Toronto-based startup that trades user-generated images.

The sale of politically sensitive pictures to a Chinese company raises the question of whether they will become harder to access. The answer depends partly on your location. Within mainland China the issue of who owns sensitive images is a somewhat academic matter. Censorship—both government-led and self-imposed—means that images such as “Tank Man” rarely see the light of day anyway.

A bigger concern is that a Chinese owner might choose to restrict—or be compelled to restrict—the use of sensitive images internationally. That would amount to, in effect, China’s censorship affecting a global audience. So far, nothing suggests this is likely. Immediately upon completing the purchase of Corbis’s library, Visual China Group announced a deal to allow Getty Images to distribute the Corbis images globally—except, that is, in mainland China.