Discipling the Dragon: Christian Publishing Finds Success in China
China's communist government may be constricting freedom of worship in some places, such as Beijing's Shouwang house church, but Chinese consumers are gaining access like never before to legally published books by best-selling American evangelical authors.
Since early April, the 1,000-member-strong Shouwang church has held services outdoors rain or shine, and eight of its pastors are under house arrest. The government, citing the church's lack of registration, pressured the church's landlord to cancel Shouwang's lease.
At the same time, there has been a surge across China in the availability of popular Christian titles by authors Rick Warren, Gary Chapman, and Beth Moore, as well as classic titles by C. S. Lewis and others. Statistics on Christian book sales are unreliable in China. But figures on Bible publishing provide one reliable snapshot of the phenomenal growth. Amity, the official publisher of Bibles inside China, increased Bible printing each year from 1998 (2.8 million) to 2008 (10 million). Other than Bibles, top sellers are Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, with more than 100,000 in print, and the Francine Rivers novel Redeeming Love.
A big reason for this growth is the 2008 debut of the online-only retailer Baojiayin (GoodNewsinChina.com). For decades, the government heavily limited the retail sales of Christian literature. But all that changed with Baojiayin.
For instance, Paul Douglas, an Australian medical doctor living in China, uses Baojiayin to send about $140 worth of books to local churches, creating an instant lending library. Douglas can donate sets of theological commentaries, marital advice books, and biographies of Christian leaders.
In addition, Douglas, ordering through another faith-and-values bookseller, ZDL Books, buys titles such as John Stott's The Message of Romans commentary and DVDS such as June Hunt's Hope for the Heart counseling series for individuals, especially graduating seminarians. "I choose the books, plug in the person's address, and they are typically sent out within a day," Douglas says.
Another new reality is driving sales: the government has given its official blessing to direct-to-consumer book sales. While book content is still under stringent review, communist leaders increasingly view religious literature as a positive influence on Chinese citizens.
Baojiayin is unique in selling exclusively Christian titles. Beyond books, Baojiayin sells everything from Cru's Jesus film to the Christian Broadcasting Network's Superbook DVDS. "We're seeing things approved that five years ago no one would have thought would ever be approved," says a Baojiayin employee.
In Beijing, a university professor (who asked not to be named) says he buys hundreds of books each year for students and friends. The professor's wife likewise gives away Sally Clarkson's books on motherhood, Josh McDowell's books on parenting, and Patricia St. John's children's books.
The professor, who moved to China six years ago, frequently gives The Good Life by Charles Colson and The Call by Os Guinness as gifts to those enrolled in his time-management course. "It's important for students to know why they are at university, beyond trying to become financially successful," the professor says.
Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in Indiana, says interest in Christianity is a byproduct of economic reforms initiated by then-Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978. "There has been an increased interest in all religious publications, not just Christian, especially among college-educated, urban young professionals," Yang says.