Skip to main content
China's Threat to the Bible
Getty Images

China's Threat to the Bible

Nina Shea

The Bible is America’s best-selling book, annually outpacing the top 20 best sellers combined. Yet a single Chinese company has a near monopoly on Bible printing, meaning that any rupture in the supply chain—say, from U.S. or Chinese government policies—would lead to a Bible shortage in America. This poses a serious threat both to American Christians’ fundamental religious liberty rights and to national security.

More than 20 million Protestant and Catholic Bibles are printed annually by America’s largest Bible publishing companies. But few are aware that most of these Bibles are printed in China, by Amity Printing Company. (Bible publishers that don’t print in China include InterVarsity Press [IVP], St. Ignatius Press, St. Benedict Press, Cambridge University Press, R. L. Allan & Son, and Schuyler Bibles.) Thanks to American publishing decisions, American Christians rely on a state that represses Christianity for their Bibles. While China intensifies religious persecution at home and is considered by U.S. Intelligence to be “the greatest threat to America today,” this Bible supply chain is increasingly precarious. Yet the Bible publishers have no plans to use alternative printing presses.

The supply chain was tested in 2019, when the Trump administration proposed broad trade tariffs to better balance U.S.-China trade relations. As the plan included tariffs against Bibles, America’s Bible publishers found themselves alongside Beijing vociferously lobbying Washington against the measure. HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP), now the world’s largest Bible publisher (having acquired Zondervan and ThomasNelson), uses Amity to print most of its Bibles, as does Tyndale House, America’s largest privately-owned Christian publisher. HCCP CEO Mark Schoenwald denounced the proposed tariff before the U.S. Trade Commission last year. He called it a “Bible tax,” and argued that it would force his company to reduce sales and discontinue some Bible editions. The Trump administration quickly exempted Bibles from the China tariffs.

Christian ministry publishers lobbied as well, arguing that the tariffs would curb First Amendment rights. Stan Jantz, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, declared that the tariffs would do “significant damage to Bible accessibility.” He stated before the Trade Commission that “[s]ome believe such a tariff would place a practical limitation on religious freedom.” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, asserted that “the proposed tariffs will impact all Christians’ ability to exercise their religious freedom in the United States.” Pastor Ben Mandrell, CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, declared: “I am troubled that the Word of God would ever be taken hostage in an international trade dispute. These past months have strengthened our resolve to get Bibles to the people who need them. Our mandate is built on obedience to Christ, regardless of any policy proposal from Washington, D.C.” 

It’s not difficult to imagine that if the Chinese government put a bit of pressure on the supply chain, American Bible publishers would be motivated to lobby against other policies that are similarly tough on China, effectively making them soft power assets of Beijing. The tariff threat is over, but the Bible continues to be at risk—most imminently from Chinese Communist Party policies, not Washington. National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe notes that many of China’s prominent companies offer only “a layer of camouflage to the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.” Amity is no exception. It is linked to the China Christian Council (CCC), which came under direct CCP oversight and guidance in 2018.

In the 1980s, Chinese Anglican Bishop Ting, then CCC president, proposed Amity as a joint venture between his new Amity Foundation and the United Bible Societies (UBS) to supply Bibles to Chinese churches. The UBS agreed and donated the start-up capital, printing presses, and Bible paper, which it continues to supply for Chinese-language Bibles. In 1988, the CCC president laid the foundation stone for Amity Printing in Nanjing. Today, Amity’s plant in Nanjing is 85,000 square meters, operates 24/7, and is the world’s largest Bible printing press. It boasts of having printed over 200 million Bibles (up to 25 million hardbound Bibles annually) in over 130 languages, for 147 countries.

Amity is both cheap and efficient, with state-of-the art printing technology and presses acquired from foreign companies. But Amity’s reputation may soon take a major hit, thanks to a recent Chinese government directive. It was in Amity’s hometown of Nanjing, in 2018, that Beijing announced it was launching a plan to retranslate or reinterpret the venerable Chinese Union Bible in order to align it with CCP policies. This was part of a new five-year plan to “Sinicize” Christianity. Chinese Christian experts have reason to fear that the forthcoming version will drop the book of Revelations and distort moral lessons through new scriptural commentaries—the account of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman in John 8, for example, was already altered in 2020 Chinese textbooks (used in government-run secondary vocational schools) to claim that Jesus stoned the woman.

How did Amity react to this alarming directive? It sponsored a celebratory event, dedicated to “the theme of Chinese Bible and Christian Sinicization.” There, officials of the CCP’s United Front Work Department and the CCC, along with the UBS, were photographed joined in a circle dance, toasting the company and receiving VIP treatment. Amity plans to print the new, distorted Bibles. They will be the only Bibles approved by the communist party, effectively denying religious freedom to tens of millions of Chinese Christians. This comes after regulations two years ago that censored the Bible from the Chinese Internet, banned youth from church services and Bible camps, and authorized the burning of Bibles possessed without state authorization. 

So far, there has been no vociferous protest from the American publishers. They have not used their leverage to stop the ongoing crackdown on house churches. Nor have they used it to free Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church, now serving a nine-year prison term; Christian bookseller Chen Yu, sentenced in October to seven years; and Catholic democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, who is facing possible life imprisonment in Hong Kong.

Though they started with good intentions, the publishers are now in a bind. Protecting this supply chain will become untenable as the CCP continues to tighten its control. American Bible publishers can best preserve Americans’ First Amendment rights—and their own reputations—by immediately shifting their printing out of China.

Read in First Things

Related Articles

Winning the Geo-Tech Battle and Building the Quad Alliance in the Indo-Pacific

Eric B. Brown et al.

This policy memo examines seven areas of cooperation between members of the Quad alliance that would strengthen a technological environment anchored b...

Continue Reading

U.S.-Japan Alliance in Full Bloom

Patrick M. Cronin

Washington’s cherry blossoms are beyond their peak, but the U.S.-Japan alliance will be in full bloom this Friday when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga b...

Continue Reading

Doubling Down on Democracy

Tod Lindberg

Americans are beginning to feel some relief from the worst of the political pressures of the past twelve months. Nevertheless, a global pandemic, nati...

Continue Reading