In his book Our Endangered Values, former United States President Jimmy Carter writes of a conversation he had with Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping during his visit to the United States in 1979. After telling Deng about his own religious background, he asked if it might be possible for the Chinese government to change its restrictive policies towards religion. Deng asked him for specific suggestions. “After a few moments’ thought,” Carter writes, “I made three requests: guarantee freedom of worship, permit the distribution of Bibles, and reopen the door to missionaries. Before returning to China, Deng Xiaoping told me that the basic law would be changed to allow for religious freedom and that Bibles would be authorized.” Deng rejected the request to allow missionaries back into China.
A year later, in 1980, churches began to reopen in China, and three years later, in 1982, the government issued Document 19: The Basic Viewpoint on the Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period, which allowed for the return of religion into Chinese society.
In 1988, Amity Press, a joint venture between China-based Amity Foundation and the UK-based United Bible Societies began producing Bibles in China. Since then it has grown to be one of the largest Bible printing operations in the world. According to statistics published by Amity Foundation, they printed 495,289 Bibles in China in 1988; in 2015, the number was 12,087,489. On July 18, 2016, Amity celebrated the printing of the 150 millionth Bible. While they do not give the breakdown of what percentage are for export vs. domestic consumption, the American Bible Society indicates that roughly half of the Bibles printed are for distribution within China. That would indicate, then, a total of 75 million Bibles published in China for distribution in China since 1988.
Is that enough to meet the demand for Bibles in China? As with most questions related to China, the answer is “complicated.” In this article we will explore some of the key issues related to Bible availability in China, as well as the common means of addressing them.
The first issue is one of demand. This is difficult, if not impossible to measure because of the unreliability of statistics about the number of Christians in China, which range from 36 million to estimates of 100 million. However, with either of those numbers, it’s reasonable to infer that the demand for Bibles would be quite high.
Another way of thinking about demand is to base it on the total population. There are 1.35 billion people in China. Because each person should have the right to the Bible, that is how demand is determined. Many organizations that continue to smuggle Bibles into China adopt this posture. Their rationale is simple, namely, that that there are still tens of millions of Chinese who do not have access to the Bible.
The second issue is supply. This is somewhat easier to measure because of the Amity statistics; we know how many they produce each year. However, there are a number of factors that influence the supply of Bibles.
The most important is the fact that the Bible does not have access to the market in China. China does not allow for the importation of books into China, whether it is the Bible, a Harry Potter book, or the latest from Jordan Peterson. In order for any book to be legally sold or distributed in China, it must have a China-issued ISBN. Although there was much optimism that it was about to happen around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, to date, the government has not issued one for the Bible. Instead, the Bible is classified as an “internal document” (neibu内部) of the China Christian Council/Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CCC/TSPM). As such, Bibles are only legally available from CCC/TSPM outlets such as registered churches, registered meeting points, and approved distribution centers.
This has a limiting effect on supply because production levels are determined based on the demand within the CCC/TSPM churches. While it is possible, even likely, that the number printed each year is enough to supply the registered churches, it is less likely to meet the demands within the unregistered churches.
It is also not clear how the production levels are set—according to actual demand from the churches or by quotas from the government. For the past 10-12 years, many Western ministries that purchase Bibles directly from Amity for their rural distribution efforts have reported few problems in securing Bibles to meet their needs.
Another factor related to supply is distribution. While Bibles are readily available in urban areas, churches and congregations in remote rural areas have a harder time obtaining them. Sometimes this is a function of access, and sometime this is a function of economics. Even if believers in rural areas have access to one of 70+ distribution centers around the country, they may be too poor to purchase the Bibles.
The past decade has also seen the proliferation of online bookstores that offered the Bible for sale. This meant that anyone with access to the internet could go online and purchase a Bible that would be shipped anywhere in the country. Although quite common, this was never legal and in the spring of 2018, the Chinese government ordered the practice to cease.
The advent of the smart phone has also impacted the availability and distribution of the Bible in China. Consider the numbers. As of January 2018, the Chinese Internet Network Information Center reported 772 million Internet users and 753 million mobile phone subscribers, with 97.5% of Internet users access the Internet via their smart phones. This means that anyone with access to the Internet and/or a smart phone technically has access todigital versions on sites such as O-Bible, as well as a variety of downloadable Bible apps such as Bible.is. While there may be a preference for the printed Bible in many quarters, as of this writing, digital versions of the Bible continue to be available in China.
Historically there have been two approaches used by outside organizations that feel called to address the issue of availability and accessibility of Bibles in China: smuggling them in, and purchasing/distributing within official channels. Before the advent of Bible printing in China, receiving smuggled Bibles was the only method that many believers inside China had of obtaining Bibles. After Bibles became available within China, many believed that smuggling was no longer necessary, and any availability problems could be addressed internally. The debate continues today.
Despite the availability of Bibles inside China, there are still ministries that bring in Bibles from the outside. This involves printing Bibles outside of China, having foreigners with tourist visas carry them over the border, and then handing them over to local contacts for distribution within the country. I spoke with a leader of one such ministry who said they look at the numbers and sees a shortage. “There simply aren’t enough Bibles being produced and distributed within China to meet the demand,” he said. “We believe there are tens of millions, mostly in the rural areas who have trouble accessing a Bible, either because they can’t afford it or they can’t afford to travel to the urban areas where they are available. They have to find the Bible in their community.” Working with local networks, they have been able to distribute more than one million Bibles to places where they are needed.
The second approach is to work within the system, purchasing the Bibles directly from Amity or local churches and distributing them to areas where they are needed. Mike Falkenstine, President of One-Eight Catalyst (formerly China Resource Center) and author of The Chinese Puzzle, was involved for many years in rural Bible distribution projects through legal channels in China. This method was more in line with his ministry philosophy of working through legitimate means to address needs within China. He said that his ministry was always able to secure the requested number of Bibles for their distribution projects. Another ministry leader that sources Bibles within China indicated that they have been able to distribute ten million Bibles over the past 20 years, both to registered and unregistered congregations.
While the debate is not likely to be settled anytime soon, it is clear that there is room for different approaches to the problem, and that God can and does use them to see his Word “run and be glorified” in China.
As to the current situation under Xi Jinping, both ministry leaders I communicated with indicated things have gotten tighter, with local contacts (both official and unofficial) becoming more cautious of working with “Western-looking faces.”
And once again, the “new normal” may have the effect of actually shifting the conversation away from outsiders (to smuggle or not to smuggle) to the church within China itself. Relying less on outside personnel and funding, the church has an increased opportunity to come up with creative solutions for addressing the issue of Bible availability in China.
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio