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A Chinese company buys Corbis. What happens to Tiananmen Square photos?

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Jeff Widener/AP/File

(Read caption) A Chinese man blocks a line of tanks on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. on Monday June 5, 1989.

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Thousands of iconic historical images, including of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, have been sold from Corbis Entertainment to China's largest image licensing company, prompting concern that photos from the Tiananmen Square incident – including those of wounded students and of "Tank Man," the solitary figure who stopped a column of tanks – might be censored not just within China's "Great Firewall" but beyond. 

The licensing arm of Corbis Entertainment, which is owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has been sold to Visual China Group (VCG) for an undisclosed amount, the company announced Friday. VCG will partner with Getty Images in coming months to distribute photos internationally; inside China, it has been the sole distributor of Getty Images for over a decade. 

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"Nothing changes immediately for you today," Corbis said in a statement to customers. "Once this transition is complete, you will have access to an unprecedented combined offering, with Corbis content available together with Getty Images' award-winning collections of almost 200 million creative and editorial images and videos."

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Craig Peters, Getty’s senior vice president for business development, told The New York Times that fears about the international availability of photos were uncalled for, saying that "VCG has no limitations over what we produce or what we represent or what we bring to bear in our markets." According to Mr. Peters, many of the images, including the most controversial ones, are owned by third parties such as the Associated Press; Corbis is the licensing agent.

Photo searches within China, however, will likely be a different story, in keeping with the government's far-reaching censorship of what's known about the "June 4 Incident," or simply "6/4." Both terms are unsearchable on Chinese search engines and social media, such as Sina Weibo, along with dozens of variations to prevent creative Internet users from discussing the massacre: on previous anniversaries, searches for terms like "square," "tank," "candle," and even "today" have turned up empty. 

According to the Chinese government, 200 "counter-revolutionary" demonstrators were killed. However, activists estimate that as many as 2,000 died, mostly students who had occupied the square to call for democratic reform. On June 1, 1989, journalists were barred from the square, where as many as one million demonstrators had assembled; days later, soldiers were ordered to disperse the crowd. Most were killed on surrounding streets of Beijing, not inside the square itself.

CNN reporters searching in Chinese found nothing relevant when they tried to find images of the protests on Corbis this week, in keeping with China's "Great Firewall" censorship policies which have impacted several U.S. companies. 

Google Search attracted criticism for cooperating with Chinese requirements until 2010, when discovery of Chinese cyberattacks and hacking of activists' Gmail accounts prompted the company to push back by rerouting all in-China searches through its uncensored servers in Hong Kong. The decision made Google Search inaccessible for most users in China, the world's largest market of Internet users.

A quarter century of Tiananmen-related censorship appears to have worked. Not only do most Chinese born in the 1980s or later know little about the protests, many say they aren't interested in learning more

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"The war being waged online by Chinese censors highlights the fundamental nature of censorship in China," Hong Kong publisher Bao Pu wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about publishers' self-censorship. "It is pre-emptive rather than solely reactive, which serves Beijing’s long-run purposes better and is an effective social-engineering tool."