Today’s China: Communist Millionaires, Kissing Contests, and Oh Yes, the Olympics


Liu Heung Shing was Time magazine’s first photojournalist based in Beijing; his earliest work covered the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. He has since worked for the Associated Press in Beijing, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Seoul, and Moscow. His books include China After Mao and USSR: Collapse of an Empire, and he shared a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for coverage of the Soviet Union.

His latest project is an impressive book of photography that he edited, China: Portrait of a Country. We selected some photos from the most recent period in Chinese history and asked Liu to comment on them. Below is his guest post as well as the captions that accompany the photographs in the book.

Today’s China: Communist Millionaires, Kissing Contests, and the Olympics

A Guest Post

By Liu Hueng Shing

China has undergone a few important periods such as the brutal land reforms when the landlords were publicly humiliated, land and property being nationalized, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and, of course, the 1989 Tiananmen Incident.

The book is meant to be a visual chronicle of the People’s Republic since 1949. To lay out the chapters as I have done, the transport of time and events could also let the readers appreciate the gradual changes, the clothing, and the body language of the people in their daily lives.


A worker transports drilling equipment at a coal refinery site on the border of Shaanxi province and Inner Mongolia.

“I have lived for three-fourths of the last century, and I can tell you with certainty: should China embrace the parliamentary democracy of the Western world, the only result would be that 1.3 billion Chinese people would not have enough food to eat.”

Jiang Zemin, President of the People’s Republic of China (1993 to 2003)


A sign of the changing times: young couples take part in a daring kissing contest in Sichuan province.

Today the important absence in people’s daily lives are these endless ideological campaigns of what is considered “Political Left” and “Political Right” (e.g. liberal vs. conservative in terms of political and economic reforms), and people just get on with their lives and want to achieve materially as much as possible within their respective generations.


Children practicing gymnastics at a special school for athletes in Hubei province.

Chinese people also have their own “never again” determination of not letting the country reverse back to the periods preceding the Cultural Revolution and the period itself, which lasted nearly 10 years. The tumultuous events for the Chinese people have lasted almost 30 years from the establishment of the new republic.


Chinese workers ply their trade on the upper reaches of the Yangtze river. They work naked to protect the few clothes they posses.


“China is more prosperous than before. The people have better lives but they are not happy and confident because the scars are still there.” — Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans

By hosting the 2008 Olympics, China has invited the global community and subjected herself to the intense scrutiny of the last 7 years while Beijing prepared for the games. Almost all countries change for the better after hosting the games, and China should be no exception.


A worker collects used computer monitors from residents in a Shanghai neighborhood.

Today, ordinary Chinese — by way of pirated DVD’s — can see every Hollywood film the moment it opens in the U.S cinemas. The lifestyle magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazzar all have their local Chinese language editions. China is now home to 400 million mobile phones.


Traffic accidents are increasingly commonplace as motorbikes, bicycles, and cars compete for the right of way; their owners paying little heed to traffic laws.

In the last couple of decades, China has produced 450,000 U.S. dollar millionaires and one-third of them have joined the Chinese Communist Party; 30 million Chinese tourists travel abroad. This paradox is indeed spellbinding.

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  1. DB says:

    The picture with the vendor and the computer monitors is incredible. What a perfect metaphor for modern China (or indeed much of civilization).

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  2. Horatio says:

    I don’t get what you mean by that last sentence. Paradox in what way?

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  3. kamii says:

    It strikes me as comical that all three people involved in the traffic accident in the last photo are using their cell phones, even the two laying on the ground. I can’t say that, were I in a non-dire accident and could use my cell, my first reaction wouldn’t be to call home or shoot off a text, but to have it captured in the photo tells a little mini-story of China’s changing culture, I think.

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  4. Crusoe says:

    @ Horatio,

    I believe he means the paradox of 150,000 American dollar millionaires joining the communist party.

    The paradox (or irony) being that communism is a socioeconomic philosophy that promotes common ownership of property and should result in a classless society.

    “Communist millionaire” should be an oxymoron.

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  5. Eddy says:

    Is it just me or does the placement of the front wheel in the vendor/computers picture seem slightly surreal to you?

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    • Me says:

      The water on the ground looks like a shadow of the wheel, making it look like it’s in the air when it’s not.

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  6. Andy says:

    It is really a paradox. so the chinese communist name it as “china style communism”, although nobody believe that it is communism.

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  7. Lisa says:

    Not a paradox at all. It takes government/party connections to get the sort of exploitative opportunities that have created most substantial personal wealth in China.

    Eddy/#5, large Sanlunche like that are usually thus proportioned, differently from standard two-wheel bicycles. And lanes like those are often in better shape, nicer inside, and with more affluent residents than in the newer highrises, by the way.

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  8. Justin James says:

    @ #5 (Eddie) – It’s just you. The vendor is riding a bicycle which is towing a 2 wheel cartl. With the angle, the bicycle wheel is clearly nowhere near the cart, but it is hard to see the bike, so it looks odd.


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