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China Bans Online Bible Sales as It Tightens Religious Controls

By Ian Johnson  

BEIJING — The Chinese government has banned online retailers from selling the Bible, moving in the wake of new rules to control the country’s burgeoning religious scene.

The measures to limit Bible sales were announced over the weekend and began taking effect this week. By Thursday, internet searches for the Bible came up empty on leading online Chinese retailers, such as JD.com, Taobao, and Amazon, although some retailers offered analyses of the Bible or illustrated storybooks.

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The retailers did not respond to requests for comment, although Thursday is the start of a long holiday weekend in China.

The move aligns with a long-standing effort to limit the influence of Christianity in China. Among China’s major religions — which include Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and folk beliefs — Christianity is the only one whose major holy text cannot be sold through normal commercial channels. The Bible is printed in China but legally available only at church bookstores.

The advent of online retailers created a loophole that made the Bible easily available. This was especially important in China given the growing dominance of online shopping.

The closing of that loophole follows new government religious regulations that have effectively tightened rules on Christianity and Islam, while promoting Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion as part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote traditional values.

The moves also come as China is engaged in negotiations with the Vatican to end the split between the underground and government-run Catholic church. This would end a nearly 70-year split between the Chinese government and the global church, which Beijing traces to the Vatican’s historically strong anti-Communist stance.

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Observers said the new measures could be a sign of a broader crackdown. At a news conference Tuesday outlining Beijing’s approach, a government spokesman said the Vatican would never be allowed control over the clergy in China. That came after a recent government reorganization in which a hard-line Communist Party department took over management of religious policy.

“It sounds like the opposition force within the Chinese authorities who oppose the Vatican-China relations have their voice,” said Yang Fenggang, head of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. “It clearly shows that they worry or are concerned about Catholics as well as Protestants.”