Bibles in China have a history of intrigue. Under Mao, China attempted to extirpate religion altogether, and during the Cultural Revolution, hostile officials confiscated and destroyed Bibles—think Fahrenheit 451. Bible owners were thrown in prison camps or worse. And even after Mao’s death in 1976, Bibles remained scarce. Throughout the late 1970s and early ’80s, as China reopened, gutsy Christian Westerners smuggled in suitcases of the impolitic Book across the border, slipping them to nervous but elated house-church leaders.
Today, obtaining a Bible is China no longer a cloak-and-dagger operation. Owning a Bible became less politically sensitive throughout the ’80s; and in 1988, Beijing permitted the Protestant Amity Foundation to open, the only organization in China allowed to print and distribute Bibles. But even though Beijing has decriminalized Bibles, that doesn’t mean acquiring one is easy. China is suffering a Bible shortage and a distribution clog.
While it’s impossible to say how many Bibles China needs—only a free market could determine that—rough comparative numbers are indicative.
The American market proves a useful gauge. The Bible is America’s runaway best-seller. The New Yorker wrote about it in 2006, noting that “the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year,” outselling even Harry Potter, and that “the amount spent annually on Bibles has been put at more than half a billion dollars.” Exact annual sales vary, but it’s safe to say American consumers buy at least 25 million Bibles each year. And there are around 247 million Christians in the U.S.
In China, the exact numbers get trickier—in part because so many Chinese Christians worship covertly, in “underground” or “house” churches not approved by the government. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life counted 67 million Chinese Christians in December 2011; the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary puts their estimate in the neighborhood of 106.5 million. Other estimates are even higher.
But China’s Bible supply is comparatively tiny—not for want of effort, either. Despite Beijing’s historic fear and loathing of religion, Amity has managed to become one of the biggest Bible producers in the world. By 2010, it had printed more than 80 million Bibles—54 million of them for the Chinese market. That’s amazing progress in less than a quarter century, a testament to Chinese Christians’ adeptness at honoring both God and Caesar.
That still means there’s less than one legally printed Bible for each Chinese Christian. Beijing allows the production of about 3.5 million Bibles a year. That’s incredibly meager, even if you ascribe to the government’s low-ball headcounts of Chinese Christians.
The demand for Bibles in China is even more acute because Christians aren’t the only ones who consume them.
In the U.S., Wal-Mart is one of the biggest Bible distributors, playing heavily to customer demographics. Bible publishers are also keen marketers, to believers and nonbelievers alike. Zondervan alone offers around 800 different branded Bibles to American consumers, including but not limited to the Playful Puppies Bible for dog-lovers; a Bible with supplementary reflections by Jimmy Carter; a sparkly pink Precious Princess Bible; and a kid-friendly NIV Adventure Bible with “games, a scavenger hunt [and] jungle safari theme.” There’s truly something for everyone.
So how would the Bible do in China? Spiritual curiosity is rampant there. Even the government has noted that the number of Protestants has grown by more than 60 percent in the past 15 years and Catholics by more than 25 percent. China is also intensely pragmatic, and its ambitious citizens have doubtless noticed that all the modern superpowers except Japan—Britain, Germany and the U.S.—were all heavily influenced by Christianity. This suggests that demand for Bibles is far, far greater than the current supply.
Upping the allowance of Bibles wouldn’t entirely solve the China’s Bible shortage, either. Distribution has also replaced direct persecution as another primary obstacle to mass Bible-owning in China.
Beijing allows only state-approved Catholic and Protestant churches to sell Bibles: Bookstores risk losing their license if they sell the Holy Book, regardless of consumer demand. That makes obtaining a Bible inconvenient at best and impossible at worst.
Beijing’s reluctance to allow a free Bible market is somewhat understandable. The government recognizes five religions, but it believes religion can pose a political threat. Two of them, Islam and Buddhism, have strong separatist strains; meanwhile, Catholicism brought down Poland’s authoritarian government; and the really paranoid or historically aware cadres will note that an eccentric Protestant cult-leader catalyzed China’s Taiping Rebellion in the mid-1800s.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s current Bible policy is self-defeating. Allowing free consumption of Bibles would be an easy point-winner for China, much-criticized in the international community for its fight against religious freedom. Moreover, the government is terrified of Christian cults, which often turn political. Christians who have access to their Scriptures are less likely to ascribe to weird fringe beliefs.
By creating a free market for Bibles, China could promote educated and peaceful Christianity. That, in turn, would contribute to harmonious Chinese society.
Ms. Melchior is a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire