Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Restraint of Christianity in China, Part 1: The Bible Problem 

During the last year or so, there has been a spate of actions by the government that seems to suggest a new pressure on the church in China. I was going to call this "Repression of Christianty in China," but in deference to the Italian journalist's point about how dumplings are cooked, I decided to call it, "Restraint of Christianity in China." The story centers around the destruction of churches and crosses in the city of Wenzhou in the summer of 2014. But that incident or series of incidents was preceded by a severe restriction in the publication of Bibles, so I am going to divide this into two segments, the first dealing with the Bible problem, and the second addressing the situation in Wenzhou.

The Bible Problem. A year or so ago, I took a student to the bookstore in the Three-Self Church I attend to help her buy a Bible. They said they didn't have any. I didn't need one myself, but I was curious, so I went back every week and got the same answer. I should note that the particular type of Bible I was checking on was the bilingual version (pictured), because that is the one students prefer. Most students tell me that the English is easier to understand than the Chinese. In fact, the old Chinese Union Version was (and still is) an extraordinary literary accomplishment, put together and modified during a span of close to one hundred years, ending in 1919 or 1920. But it's basically a late Qing Dynasty work, so the language is archaic. But for Chinese students who read English, the bilingual version is really an ideal combination, because they can read the English, which is more comfortable for them, but they also have access to the Chinese Union Version, which is more scholarly, and sometimes more accurate than the English, because the CUV is not translated from English. It is translated directly from Greek and Hebrew to Chinese more literally than some English versions, and sometimes more accurately.

Anyway, it was clearly not available anymore, and I was very concerned about why not. I talked to three of the pastors--all three of them denied knowing anything about it. I know that seems extraordinary, but this is China. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Finally I got the report, and, not surprisingly, it did not come from China, it came from Mission Network News.

Listen to the report, and draw your own conclusions, but here is what I think is happening:

In China, all Bibles are printed at Amity Press in Nanjing. Bibles are not allowed to have ISBN numbers, and sale of Bibles in public bookstores is strictly forbidden. I did see a couple black market Bibles in a bookstore once, but this is very rare. Basically, if you want to buy a Bible in China, you need to go to a Three-Self Church bookstore, or buy one on the street for a ghastly price. But having said that, there has not been a quota limit on purchase of Bibles by Church people in churches. So church people who wanted a Bible could usually get one (unless, as I said, there was a black market operation going on). What it comes down to is that the Party has resigned itself to the fact that there are going to be Christians in China, and that the Church is not going to go away. So they allow Bibles to be sold in Church bookstores to Church people, but not to the general public. What I think happened is that the Communist Party, in its periodic examination of the number of Bibles that were going out, discovered that somebody was going to a church or churches and buying up huge numbers of Bibles for the purpose of distributing them to people outside the church--that is, members of the general public who are not church goers and would not otherwise be inclined to come in contact with the Bible. So the Party decided to compensate for this by shutting down the production of Bibles for a period of time. This shows that they still have a few things to learn about economics--limiting supply does not diminish demand. Quite the opposite. But it also shows that they view the growth of Christianity with suspicion and concern.

Some people (myself included) might be inclined, at first, to see this as religious repression, but when I mentioned the issue to the Italian reporter, he just shrugged, "Rice, noodles, dumplings. Think about how they're cooked. They all involve water, but it's different." I have to admit he is right. The government is not trying to shut down Christianity. They are just adding some cold water to the mix to keep it from boiling over. Printing of Bibles has been restored now, and you can buy Bibles again, although I understand there is a quota of two Bibles per person. [Note that I am speaking about people in the cities. It is not always so easy in the countryside, as the report from Mission Network News indicates.]

So the most significant fact about the Bible problem is that it is not that significant. The Party's decision to (artificially) reduce supply has almost certainly increased demand, so it is likely that there will be more Bibles in China than there would have been if they had just left the matter alone. In today's China, anyone with a smart phone can have a Bible in minutes. I don't have an iPhone, but I know with an Android phone you can Blue Tooth the .apk file from one phone to another very easily. There is no restriction on how many times a file like that can be duplicated, and, of course, no way that any government entity can track how many eBibles are being distributed. So Bibles are here to stay. It's not like it used to be... but that brings up a question: How did it used to be?

Let's talk about that. The Communist Party is very much opposed to foreign control of religion, and when they first came to power, the Bible was viewed as a foreign book and religion viewed as the "opium of the people," to quote Karl Marx (das Opium des Volkes). So there was much government opposition to the Bible, and they were not easy to find. But there were attempts to bring them in from outside, the most notable being the the massive smuggling operation called, "Project Pearl," where a missionary by the name of Brother David smuggled a million bibles into China. I first read about Project Pearl in the classic book about Bible smuggling by Brother Andrew. I next read about it in Jesus in Beijing just before I moved to China. In that book, David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine says that the CIA was flying overhead and was astounded by what they saw. I have often wondered if it was in fact the CIA that tipped off the Chinese that a massive smuggling operation was going on right under their noses. Clearly the CIA could not have known that it was Bibles, not drugs that were being smuggled. At any rate, the police did show up, but they were too late, and the incident became a profound embarrassment to the Chinese government. You shouldn't be able to smuggle a million of anything into a country. I believe it was this embarrassment that eventually led to the establishment of Amity Press, which has printed millions of Bibles for the Christians of China since that incident.

The Bible is a revolutionary book. Empires have risen and fallen on the truth in its pages. Horace Greely said,

It is impossible to enslave, mentally or socially, a bible-reading people. The principles of the bible are the groundwork of human freedom.
Bible-reading people are hard to manipulate. They tend to be independent thinkers. So it is understandable that governments inclined toward controling the thinking of the people would want to keep those people from reading the Bible. But this recent attempt by the powers that be in China is not likely to work, because people tend to want what is forbidden. They would be smarter to try the American approach: let people have all the Bibles they want until they get tired of them. In America, the Bible has sold more copies than any other book for so long that it no longer even appears on best-seller lists. Americans buy the Bible in every size and shape, but rarely to they actually sit down and read it. In China, if a Christian has a Bible, he or she is much more likely to read it. Christians in China ask me probing questions about the Bible. So I am not worried. The long term effect of this pruning is going to be good for China.

By the way, the reason my Bible looks so rugged is not because I read it all the time. In fact, I do most of my daily Bible reading on my smart phone these days. But in the early morning, I like to go sit by the lake and have my devotions. Clumsy as I am, my Bible fell in the lake the other day. I fished it out right away, but the pages are a little crinkly.

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