China: Is Bible Smuggling Obsolete?

Kristin Butler | Contributing Writer | Tuesday, March 10, 2009

China: Is Bible Smuggling Obsolete?

March 12, 2009

Afterwards it would be called the “Night of a Million Miracles.” It was June 18, 1981, and Bibles were scarce in communist China. The borders were tightly closed to Christian literature, and believers risked arrest and torture simply to meet together in their homes. In spite of the persecution, a network of house churches was springing up across the country, creating a tremendous need for Bibles.

That’s where “Project Pearl” came in. The project, initiated by Open Doors, and conducted with all the precision of a military operation, involved printing 1 million Bibles in the West, and then exporting them to Hong Kong, where they were loaded onto a schooner that traveled 200 miles up the coast of China before pulling up to its destination: a deserted beach near the village of Gezhou in China. Out of the darkness, hundreds of Chinese Christians appeared, briefly meeting their foreign guests, then vanishing into the shadows to distribute the contraband Bibles throughout the country.

Paul Estabrooks, who served as coordinator for Project Pearl, recently revealed the details of the operation in his new book, Night of a Million Miracles. Estabrooks, who now serves as Minister at Large for Open Doors, is confident of the positive results of the mission, and of the continuing need for Bibles in China. He tells of one Chinese woman who approached a Bible courier on a successive mission. “She held out a Project Pearl Bible in her hand,” Paul recounts, “and repeated the one English word she knew, ‘More!’”

Accounts such as these have long fueled the work of organizations such as Open Doors and The Bible League, organizations that have smuggled hundreds of thousands of Bibles into China and other restricted nations.

But not everyone believes that Bible smuggling is necessary or even appropriate. A debate has swirled around the topic for decades, more recently centering on the fact that China’s Amity Press has now printed over 50 million Bibles and New Testaments in China – legally. The Bibles are distributed through China’s government sanctioned churches and Christian bookstores. With the government’s stamp of approval on Amity Press Bibles, they can’t be confiscated, and Chinese Christians don’t get in trouble for owning them.

But does Amity Press make Bibles smuggling obsolete?

In a press release that triggered a debate across the Internet, Daniel Willis of the Bible Society in New Zealand wrote that, “Organizations that appealed for funds to smuggle Bibles into China were wasting ninety percent of their donors’ money.” He argued that resources would be more effectively used if they were placed behind Amity’s legal printing of Bibles.

Willis also calls Bible smuggling “counter-productive,” alleging that it “alienates Church leaders and the government, with whom Bible Society and the Amity Press has excellent relations.”

So does Bible smuggling cause more harm than good? Estabrooks doesn’t think so.

“People making these claims have organizational or political aims and probably have never witnessed a deprived believer in a restricted country kiss a newly delivered Bible or take a Bible just delivered after deprivation and hug it with tears,” he says.

Bob Fu agrees that smuggling has played a vital role in the growth of China’s church. Fu, a former house church pastor who was imprisoned for his work with the underground church, moved to the United States where he founded the China Aid Association, an organization that exposes the plight of persecuted Christians in China. He speaks of a desperate need for Bibles in his homeland.

“I can tell you one thing,” he says, “Since 1980 the Bible is the most badly needed material among the Christian literature needed in China. Unfortunately the government [in China] has restricted ways of accessing Bibles.”

He is appreciative of smuggled Bibles, and of the vast network of individuals both inside and outside of China who have been a part of the process. “So I think that the brothers and sisters all over the world who chose to smuggle Bibles into China really met a lot of the need,” he says, “And that has been a great help.”

An anonymous Christian who worked inside China for years was one of many who participated in smuggling missions. He asked that his name not be used for security purposes. “I rarely carried Bibles in myself,” he explained. “However, I played a more active role as a middle person, warehousing bags of Bibles when they were brought to the city where I lived.”

He thinks the risk was worth it, for everyone involved. “Any time God's Word can be put into the hands of a seeker of God, believer or unbeliever, it is a good thing,” he says, “I'm not sure about now, but when I was in country, the demand for Bibles far outweighed the supply.  And, with false teaching spreading, the need for solid teaching remains a high priority.”

When it comes to Amity Press and the government-sanctioned printing of Bibles, Fu says that some “facts should be clarified.”

Fu points out that the Bible is still not a legal product in any Chinese bookstore. It can only be sold in registered, government approved churches and Christian bookstores. “So I think those who have been supporting Amity press, it is fine for them to continue to support them, to help supply the need of those who choose to worship in Three Self churches [government sanctioned churches], but that does not decrease the need for those who are new believers in house churches.”

Paul Estabrooks applauds the work of Amity Printing, “I have visited the Amity Printing Press in Nanjing. They are doing great work.” But he adds that Amity “is not the whole story of Bible need and provision in China.”

It seems that the night of a million miracles has given way to the day of increased availability. Perhaps the best news of all is that Chinese believers are no longer limited to receiving smuggled Bibles.

Today, Bob Fu points out, “there are multiple ways of getting Bibles. If you get past the firewall you can download Bibles online, obtain electronic versions, Bibles on CD, and now in many areas in China printers are willing to print Bibles. There are different ways now, other than Bible smuggling, than there were 20 years ago.”


Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout South Asia and the Middle East. She is a contributing writer at and covers religious freedom and human rights issues at For further articles, visit her blog at, or email [email protected].