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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that Qin Wen pic is amazing!- juxtaposing nature's beauty with the brutal exploitation of labor- this is a true piece of art- it seems to me that China will learn the hard way about the destructive side of capitalism- 450000 millionaires with poverty, pollution, and antifreeze toothpaste to boot


@ 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.

Mike B

I guess the proper term would be CINO or Communists in Name Only. It looks like China's turned into another Animal Farm, hold the Gulags. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the organized cheering sections at the Olympics started chanting "Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better".


Well depicted and beautiful.

I have a point to make, though.

However bad a magazine, country, city, book, story, movie, or song might be or not known about by somebody else, we do fall in love or begin complete admiration of it once we are somehow tagged or associated with for a long period of time...!

All I suggest is that when the brilliant photographer returned and began to set his pictures straight, all we get to see is the brilliance. What exists below and behind these shades (of ignorance) is never captured.

I am not making much sense but to put it into perspective. I come from India and I see many people going back at times and clicking pictures which make even the bad seem 'effin brilliant.


When in an accident the person "hurt" the worst often is treated the best when determining fault and a settlement. Thus, there is a good deal of acting in some accidents. Those on the ground aren't getting up until the police get there so they'll call friends.

Those involved in accidents are encouraged to settle at the scene. if they can't the police will help, and if that doesn't work then a a visit to the the police station for further negotiation is in order.

By the way, great pics!


It would be interesting to know how many (if any) of these pictures are a mock-up or have been photoshopped. My vote is for photoshopping on Cycle Cart with Monitors and mock-up for the Accident.

Justin James

@ #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.



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


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.


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


Am I the only one who doesn't really understand the goings-on in the accident picture? Here are some questions I have:

-Whose bike is that? At first, I thought the camouflaged man was riding that bike when he got hit but it seems preposterous that he would stand his bike up then lie back down. Is his bike on the ground, out of the picture?

-Were the man and the woman on the same bike, as it appears? Which was wearing the helmet?

-Is the standing man a Good Samaritan or did he hit the pair? Did he arrive on that bike or in the white van (I can't discern whether the van has a driver)?

-How much time has elapsed since the accident?

This is not to mention the questions I would have concerning Chinese tort law and insurance. The story as I see it: camouflaged man and woman are riding a bike and are hit by a car; both the bike and the car involved in the collision are out of the frame; the standing man is a Good Samaritan on the visible bike. But maybe the man hit them on that car; maybe nobody hit them and they just ate it trying to exit quickly...

I suppose the most pertinent question is why I am devoting so much thought to this. If you have an answer to that, please let me know.



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


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.


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


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.

Norberto DeMadera

I like the foto of the Kissing Contest because the first time I traveled to China was 1991; at that time, men and women wouldn't even hold hands in public!

By the way, I'm a free-lance reportero-grafico [foto-journalist]. How would I e-mail Mr. Liu Heung Shing??



I agree, it's no paradox at all. I lived in China for awhile, and from what I saw (and what my Chinese friends told me) a lot of people over the decades have joined the Party solely, or mostly, for the perks. Actually, I've come to feel that Chinese Communists are the biggest Capitalists of all!

BTW, there's a new blog by an American author, Donald Gallinger, who's started posting his journal entries from his sabbatical in China.

He clearly has a lot of affection for the place, but is also rather fascinated with the complexities and contradictions of modern Chinese society. The blog is like this article, very impressionistic....

Loved this article, BTW! Thanks!


'Oxymoron' love the term because I work for a company called Oxy, which technically makes me a moron.

Angie Minsal liu

Excellent photos, questionable statement