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Holy Irony, World's Largest Bible Printer Is In Atheist China

Though China is officially atheist, Christianity is growing, with believers now outnumbering communists. That's good news for a huge Bible publisher that supports charities in China and Africa.

Inside Nanjing's Amity Printing Bible factory
Inside Nanjing's Amity Printing Bible factory
Nina Trentmann

NANJING — Most German households have a Bible, even if it isn't regularly read. In fact, it remains a bestseller. "We estimate the extent of annual sales for complete Bibles, which is to say the Old Testament and the New Testament in various translations, to be about 500,000," says Christoph Rösel, Secretary General of the German Bible Society headquartered in Stuttgart.

Some of the books come from the largest Bible-producing factory in the world, located in atheist China, of all places. Nowhere else are so many of the holy books printed as at Amity Bible Printing Co. in Nanjing, northwest of Shanghai. Some 13 million copies were printed there in 2014 alone, and the factory has printed nearly 130 million Bibles since its founding.

In the soulless gray industrial zone near Nanjing's South Railway Station are the sounds of rattling and roaring inside Amity Bible Printing Co. Without interruption, the printing machines pull in fresh paper, which emerges printed and cut seconds later as blue-clad workers sort the pages by hand.

The pile of paper is then transported on a pallet to another area in a vast factory hall. Here the paper is further sorted, pressed and bound. Blue signs exhort workers to be careful. "We really do have to watch what we're doing," says employee John Zhang. "Otherwise we run a high risk of burning the place down, what with so much paper." Lighters and cigarettes are thus taboo in the printing plant.

A few meters away a fully automated press is running. It presses the paper and fits it into a hard cover. The machine spits out up to 70 books per minute. "It has to go quickly — bam, bam," John Zhang says. "Otherwise we can't keep up with orders."

Every year the company sends several thousand copies to Germany. The number rose from 8,000 Bibles in 2013 to nearly 14,000 in 2014. But Germany isn't the only place with a demand for cheaply produced Bibles from China. Amity delivers primarily to South America, Africa and the rest of Europe.

In search of meaning

The company's prospects are good, in part because the number of Christians is growing in South America, Africa and also China. But what's good news for the Nanjing company — more Christians mean more Bibles sold — is a source of annoyance for the Chinese government.

The Chinese government views the growth of Christianity with skepticism. As Chinese society becomes more commercialized, growing numbers of people are seeking a deeper meaning to life and are turning to Christian churches.

Qiu Zhonghui has been watching with interest for years as more of his fellow citizens have turned to Christianity. "Since China opened up economically, the number of Christians has increased," says Amity Bible Printing's chairman. In view of rapid change, turbo urbanization and pressure on the job market, Qiu believes the need for meaning in the officially atheist country is on the rise.

This yearning is, of course, good for his business. Production for Amity has been growing. The factory has been printing in Nanjing since 1987, initially just for the Chinese market. Exports came with the new millennium.

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Photo: Yoshi Canopus

Today Amity Bible Printing prints books in some 90 foreign languages as well as Mandarin, Cantonese and some Chinese minority dialects. The factory currently employs more than 600 people, and production capacity is three times what it was in the 1980s.

The company is a joint venture consisting of the Amity Foundation and the United Bible Societies, a world alliance headquartered in London. Production is financed by the sales of Bibles, commissions for school books, and donations of paper and money.

Despite growing demand, it's a low-margin business. The Amity turnover in 2013 was equivalent to 38 million euros.

"We're not a normal company," says the chairman. "We aren't profit-oriented." But he still wants to earn money from Bibles printing and use it to support charity projects in China and Africa. "That's why it's not right to say that we aren't interested in making money," the 59-year-old says.

More Christians than communists

But in the People's Republic, Christianity is regarded with suspicion, and the churches are strictly controlled. Religious services are often monitored on video, and Chinese citizens may only take part in services arranged specifically for them. Catholics must join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, as the Beijing government does not recognize the Pope.

Perhaps that's why most of the growth is among the Protestant churches. The number of believers is thought to be 100 million, which means that Christian churches have more members than the Communist Party of China, which the Xinhua state news agency reports has just over 85 million members.

These membership figures are the reason for the many new churches that have been built over the past few years in a number of cities. But not all of them remain standing, as the example of Sanjiang demonstrates. The church near the large city of Wenzhou was torn down on government orders. The Guardian reported that other churches were also destroyed.

But that doesn’t concern the Amity Bible Printing boss. He says his company is treated like any other Chinese company.

"We have a license to do business and no problems," Qiu says. He frequently has visitors, many from abroad. "People often ask me if we censor the Bible," he says. "We don't. The government exerts no influence over content."

Because most Chinese Bibles were burned during the Cultural Revolution, there is a shortage of them in China. "In the 1980s, importing was far too expensive, which is why we decided to print them here," Qiu says. The China Christian Council, the umbrella organization of Chinese Protestant churches, distributes Bibles in communities.

Qiu wants to produce even more of them, saying the company has the capacity to print 20 million a year. These would be aimed first and foremost at the Chinese market, with export a secondary priority.

Qiu says expansion will need to come soon. An expert from Purdue University says that by 2025 the number of Christians in China will have grown to 160 million. "That means we're going to have to print a lot more than 20 million," Qiu says.

Germany will need copies too, even if most of the Bibles sold there are produced there, says Christoph Rösel of the German Bible Society. "We know our Chinese colleagues," he says. "They deliver good quality, although we do try if possible to stick to locally produced Bibles."

But via various charity initiatives, Rösel says, the German Bible Society also subsidizes production in China. "The money for that comes from individual donations or collection money from evangelical churches in Germany."

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