Last week, Chinese social media users began noticing that they couldn’t find Bibles listed on some of their nation’s most popular e-commerce platforms.
Shoppers who searched the word Bible on retailers such as Taobao, Jingdong, Dang Dang, and Amazon.cn began receiving a “no results” response, reported the South China Morning Post.
Search analytics revealed a significant spike in the keyword Bible on March 30. But by April 1, analytics showed a zero, suggesting that the word may have been censored, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Two days before the Bibles were banned from online purchase, the Chinese government released a document outlining how it intends to promote “Chinese Christianity” over the next five years. According to the document, one of the government’s key objectives is to reinterpret and retranslate the Bible in order to enhance “Chinese-style Christianity and theology.”
Among China’s main religions—which include Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and folk beliefs—Christianity is unique for having its holy text banned from commercial brick-and-mortar bookstores. Until the internet, Bibles could only be obtained via church bookstores (because they lacked a barcode), a reality that in the past has dissuaded house church Christians wary of official Three-Self churches from purchasing the text.
A joint venture between the Amity Foundation and the United Bible Societies, Amity Printing Company is the only press in China allowed by the government to print Bibles.
As CT reported in 2003:
Legal Bibles are not in short supply. The Red Guards confiscated Bibles, so that after the Cultural Revolution, the most pressing need of Christians in China was for Bibles. A decade of illegal Bible smuggling met part of the need, but it put Christians in the difficult position of supporting an illegal activity. After three years of negotiations, the Amity Press was able to begin printing Bibles legally.
The company reported in 2017 that “more than 160 million Bibles have come off our production lines.” However, many of these copies are sold overseas. The Bibles distributed in China through Amity also do not include commentaries, footnotes, or other study tools.
China’s Bible crackdown may renew a debate about whether Bibles should be smuggled into the world’s most populous country. While some have seen the action as unnecessary and dangerous to believers living in the country, others have seen it as a strategy that works in tandem with Amity. As Gary Russell, now the president of China Harvest, told CT in 2010:
Amity Press Bibles are legal, authentic, and available in many areas, and have made a substantial contribution to the need. But the Amity route is limited in quantity, variety, and distribution. Editions for children and pastors have barely been addressed. And millions of Chinese still have no regular access to a Bible.
Given these realities, covertly supplying Bibles to China is not only legitimate—it is a necessary element of obedience to Christ. While civil authorities are to be honored and respected, their authority is delegated by and limited under God. Restrictions against evangelizing and providing Scripture are not legitimate, and those who love God and China serve well by increasing the country’s Bible supply.
This latest crackdown on China’s Christian community comes two months after the government began implementing a number of regulations on faith. Under these restrictions, religious groups must gain government approval for any sort of religious activity, including using one’s personal home for a religious practice, publishing religious materials, calling oneself a pastor, or studying theology.
Earlier this year, the government announced it would drop presidency term limits, effectively allowing current president Xi Jinping to serve indefinitely. Few Christians may back this development. Overall, Xi’s first (and current) five-year term has not been particularly positive for believers. A provincial government engaged in a multi-year campaign to remove crosses from the tops of churches, while Xi has suggested that religions that inadequately conformed to Communist ideals threatened the country’s government and therefore must become more “Chinese-oriented.”
Last fall, the Communist party reportedly visited Christian households in Jiangxi province, forcibly removing dozens of Christian symbols from living rooms and replacing them with pictures of Xi.
In the midst of these crackdowns, some Christians have still chosen to speak out against the government, said Fenggang Yang, the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, who joined CT’s Quick to Listen podcast recently.
Yang read a social media post by a Chinese pastor angry at Xi’s term limit extension and clampdown on Christians, calling him a tyrant: “Making politics a religion is an evil act and a violation of the Ten Commandments. This will make the country once again fall into the idolatry of worshipping a person as a God. This will make the nation once again fall into sin provoking Jehovah’s wrath.”