NANJING, CHINA — The factory looks like it could be any plant in this export-driven nation. Hundreds of Chinese workers huddle over loud machines churning out large orders for customers at home and abroad.
But what they're making might surprise you: Bibles.
As Tibetan monks grab headlines protesting the lack of religious freedom under Chinese rule, a booming Bible industry is on its way to turning the world's biggest atheist nation into the world's largest producer of the Good Book.
Chairman Mao might have said, "Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people," but here at Nanjing Amity Printing Co., China's only state-sanctioned Bible printer, little time is wasted pondering the contradictions of a metaphysical mismatch.
"We are printers," said Li Chunnong, the general manager of the plant, which has about 500 employees. "As long as somebody legitimate sends us an order, we will print them."
This pragmatic mind-set has contributed to the company's staggering growth. Since its first Bible rolled off the presses two decades ago, Amity has printed more than 50 million copies in 75 languages and exported to more than 60 countries. With the help of a new hangar-sized facility, the company could well be the biggest Bible factory in the world, cranking out 12 million copies a year.
"The Bible is probably the bestselling book in the world," Li said. "People need spiritual fulfillment. There is a huge demand for what we do. We have certainly benefited from that phenomenon and will not let the market slip from our hands."
This kind of talk was almost unimaginable just a generation or two ago. During the radical years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, just about the only reading material the Chinese people had was the Little Red Book of Mao Tse-tung's quotations -- certainly not a big black book of Jesus' parables. Demonized as spiritual pollution, copies of the holy text were confiscated and burned.
The dawn of market-oriented reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought about a spiritual reawakening that led to bustling Buddhist and Taoist temples and the opening of the first state-sanctioned church in a nation where Christianity is a minority faith.
An estimated 30 million Christians now worship in government-approved churches that fall under the control of religious "patriotic associations." Tens of millions more are said to pray in underground outlets.
The renewed demand for religion was met with a shortage of teaching material.
The first people who dared to print the Bible again were members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. But the military press with its outdated facilities was ill-suited for the particular demands of the Bible, which requires lightweight paper that could improve the portability of the finished product. Still, the army press cranked out about 3 million copies before Amity broke into the market.
Today, about three-quarters of Amity's Bibles are printed for domestic consumption.
Founded in 1988, the company is a joint venture between a Chinese Christian charity and the United Bible Societies, a British-based organization with chapters around the world devoted to the translation, publication and distribution of the Scriptures.
The two parties raised about $5 million from Bible Societies around the world and built a factory with modern equipment on the outskirts of this ancient city, formerly known as Nanking. Peter Dean, Amity's production advisor, said the United Bible Societies does not proselytize at the plant, insisting its function in Nanjing is purely business.
"We have the same structure as a Motorola or a Philips," said Dean, a New Zealander who has worked with the company in China since 1991. "They make cellphones and TV tubes, and we're producing Bibles."
Limits on worship
Although anybody can buy a Bible in China, you can do so only through a state-run church.
Visitors to China caught smuggling in copies face stiff penalties. Last year, the leader of an underground church accused of illegally printing and distributing thousands of Bibles completed a three-year prison term.
Beijing Olympics organizers recommend that spiritually inclined international athletes coming in August bring only one copy of the Bible for their personal use if they are worried about getting into trouble. If they forget, one would be provided free, courtesy of Amity.
"I welcome this move," Anthony Lam, a researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, said of the production of Bibles in China. "We still hope Chinese officials will recognize the importance of religious freedom. But it's always a good thing [to see them printing Bibles], no matter if they are atheists or believers, as long as they print it honestly."