We've looked in this issue at what's happening in some large cities. It's been nine months since I visited China and reported to you the wildfire growth of Christianity in the largest country in the world-and that growth seems to be continuing: One Beijing official recently estimated that the number of Chinese Christians has reached 125 million.
Compare that enormous surge with the number of arrests of Christians last year for religious reasons-600, according to the U.S.-based religious-rights group China Aid Association-and it seems as if Chinese Communists are trying to stop a charging water buffalo with a pea-shooter.
Government policy varies enormously from region to region and city to city: Chinese Christians say, "China is a waffle, not a pancake," and a swimming pool of syrup in one square does not keep officials in the next from throwing Christians into prison. For example, a month ago the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted the imprisonment of pastor Wang Zaiqing for printing and distributing Bibles.
Say what? The arrests occurred as other church leaders were reporting that they are able to get plenty of Bibles from the one legal publisher within China, Amity Press. Should the inconsistency make us assume that someone is dissembling? No, because China is a waffle.
Here are some of the nuances, according to Bible distributors and Chinese Christians:
- The only churches with firm legal status are those of the government-established Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Those churches have long been compromised, and yet in some situations TSPM pastors have made bulk purchases of Bibles from Amity and quietly supplied them to unregistered churches.
- Amity Press has printed 40 million copies of the Bible since its founding in 1987, but Amity's current production is based on the number of believers in TSPM churches, and that number is much lower than the number of believers in unregistered churches. Publishing more Bibles would be an admission that the governmental attempt to limit the number of Christians through its process of monitoring and control has failed.
- Amity apparently does not always actually print as many Bibles as it reports publishing, and it might not distribute all that it prints. One of WORLD's Chinese sources-we're not publishing names to protect them from possible persecution-reports seeing a warehouse with thousands of copies of legal but confiscated Amity Bibles. Translations for minorities are also needed, and whether they can have any Bibles depends, once again, on local enforcement.
- Chinese Christian leaders are also concerned about the unavailability of study Bible editions for pastors and of children's editions. Those are, in essence, legally unavailable in any quantity, even though they are very much in demand. Church leaders sometimes turn to covert supplies. Overall, the Amity translation receives good marks for readability, although some rural Chinese Christians are still loyal to the old "Union" version.
- Cost of a Bible is generally the Chinese equivalent of about $1.50. All except the poorest urban Chinese can afford one, but many of the rural poor do not have access to any-although the bigger issue is when a purchaser wants to buy many more than one. The stories again vary widely: One Chinese source told of the police following a person who made a quantity purchase and torturing him to get information about church leaders.
One governmental defense of such torture is that Christian leaders are actually Western agents, since Christianity is a Western implant. But a new book by Chan Kei Thong that's now published in English undermines that bias. Faith of our Fathers (faithofourfathersbooks.com) shows that faith in the Creator is not a foreign implant within China but an indigenous growth. The book explains that for thousands of years Chinese worshipped and offered sacrifices to Shang Di, a Supreme Being with characteristics similar to those of the God of the Bible.
Faith of Our Fathers also shows how Chinese learned the news from Western Asia needed to complete their understanding: that the Christ had come and had risen. Dictators want to suppress dissemination of that good news, but Tony Lambert's revised and updated China's Christian Millions (Monarch, 2006) provides useful information about the growth of house churches, and God and Caesar in China (Brookings Institution Press, 2004) is a collection of essays that provide perspective on macro-policy tensions.