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China’s New Bestseller: The Bible

5 minute read
Austin Ramzy

As the book business goes, Amity Printing is not unusually prolific. In the last 20 years it has printed some 50 million books; some publishers churn out that many in a year. But Amity focuses on one title — the Bible — and primarily one market, China. It is the largest printer of Christian literature in the officially atheist country, where freedom of religion remains weak; up until 1979, when Deng Xiaoping began undoing the social strictures of the Mao Zedong era, the mere possession of a Bible could get a person into serious trouble.

Amity has churned out 41 million Bibles for Chinese believers at its plant outside the southern city of Nanjing, including more than 3 million copies last year. (About nine million copies have been exported to Africa, other parts of Asia and Central Europe.) For a country whose religious oppression tends to make more international headlines than its exhibitions of tolerance, that stands as a significant achievement. But it also highlights the gap between China’s officially sanctioned churches and the illegal “house” churches that exist outside the limited sphere of religious freedom in China.

Amity Printing, a joint venture between the Amity Foundation, a Chinese Christian charity, and the United Bible Societies, a Reading, England-based group dedicated to providing access to Christian scripture, is acting entirely within the law. Its chief customer is the China Christian Council, the supervisory body for the country’s state-controlled Protestant churches. “You can build on trust or it can be broken, depending on how you act,” says Peter Dean, a New Zealander and the resident consultant for the United Bible Society at Amity’s Nanjing plant. “In the case of Bibles, the government took a step in 1979 and extended trust toward the church to assemble, worship and print its own materials. I think it’s important to make full use of the trust that was extended. That helps build the future that everybody wants.”

About 80% of the Bibles Amity produces are for domestic use, with the remainder going to Christians in Africa, Central Europe and other Asian nations. A poll early this year by East China Normal University in Shanghai of 4,500 Chinese found that 31.4% considered themselves religious, a proportion that suggests 300 million Chinese believers; of the religious respondents, Christians represented 12%, or 40 million nationwide. Demand has grown to the point that the foundation plans to open a new, 515,000-square-foot (48,000 sq. m.) printing plant next year, which will allow Amity to turn out more than a million books a month. It’s thought to be one of the largest Bible production facilities in the world.

But in the face of China’s larger restrictions on religion, some overseas aid groups say, a boom in Bible production doesn’t mean much. “It reflects the rapid growth of the number of Christians in China,” says Bob Fu, who runs the U.S.-based China Aid Association, an advocacy group for mainland Christians. “But I don’t see that can be a sign of increasing religious freedom.” Several Chinese have recently been arrested for illegally bringing Bibles into the country, Fu points out. On Nov. 28, police raided the house of Beijing bookstore owner Shi Weihan, confiscating Bibles and other religious publications and placing him under detention. And Zhou Heng, a businessman and leader of an underground church in China’s western Xinjiang region, was arrested in August for receiving three tons of Bibles from South Korea.

Daniel Bays, head of the Asian Studies program at Calvin College in Michigan, argues that China’s restrictions on Christianity aren’t necessarily a fear of religion, but of the possible threat to the Party’s leadership that comes from any organized group. “On the whole the authorities don’t really care what people believe,” he says. “What they are afraid of [is people] getting together and meeting in secret and not registering [with the government]. It doesn’t bother them that people believe in Jesus. It bothers them that they don’t want to register and they don’t know who [the] leaders are.”

Under Chinese law, the Bibles Amity prints can be distributed only through officially sanctioned churches. But in recent years it has become easier for house churches to procure Bibles, often buying them through registered churches. Some Bibles are even appearing in bookstores, despite lacking the registration numbers required of any printed work. Jean-Paul Wiest, an expert on Chinese Catholicism who teaches at the Beijing Center, says his students have no problems getting religious materials. “Bibles are very widely available,” he says.

But Amity’s millions of Bibles could still be insufficient for China’s growing ranks of Christians — depending on how many there are. The number of China’s believers is “a hotly contested issue,” says Bays. The state-sanctioned Protestant church has 17 million members; Bays believes that membership in unregistered churches is twice that, which would put the total number of Protestants in China at around 50 million — roughly close to the number of Bibles printed. “But of course some people say there are 150 million Christians,” Bays says. “Then there aren’t enough Bibles.”

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