Bibles and Other Things Almost Banned in Beijing

Americans hoping to attend the Beijing Olympics next summer may want to avoid bringing along certain Hollywood movies or State Department reports, which may not legally be shown to the people of the People’s Republic.

An American intercepted at the Beijing airport with these items may need to convince customs officials they are only for his "personal" use.

This is what I learned from Wang Baodong, spokesman for the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, D.C.

I spoke to Wang after reading the Chinese government’s indignant reaction to a Nov. 7 report by the Catholic News Agency, which cited an Italian publication that said China would ban Bibles from Beijing’s Olympic Village.

Wang Hui, executive director of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, refuted this story, while explaining his government’s actual Bible policy to the South China Morning Post. "Athletes and other individuals can bring with them their own Bibles," he said. "But no one can bring in multiple copies for public distribution."

Confusion over what types of speech foreigners can bring with them to China may be rooted in a Chinese regulation posted on the Website of a Chinese bureaucracy called the Beijing Tourism Administration. It says: "Bringing in the following articles is prohibited: … manuscripts, printed matter, films, photographs, gramophone records, cinematographic films, loaded recording tapes and videotapes, etc., which are detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture and ethics."

So, other than multiple Bibles, what might the Chinese government deem detrimental to its "politics, economy, culture and ethics"? I spoke with Wang to find out. He politely and patiently explained to me his understanding of his government’s policy.

"What if someone coming to visit China brings in a Hollywood movie about the Dalai Lama?" I asked. "Would that be acceptable?

"Well, the Dalai Lama is a separatist, championing for whatever excuse, Tibetan independence from China," said Wang. "It is against the Chinese constitution, as I think is the same case in this country of the United States, which will not allow separation or secession of any part of the country."

I explained that our government had allowed Hollywood to make many movies about Confederates who fought for secession.

"Well, sir, there are a lot of Hollywood movies that are in China that are enjoyed by the Chinese people," said Wang.

"Could they enjoy one about the Dalai Lama?" I asked.

Ultimately, he explained that his understanding of the regulation was that, as with a Bible, an American could bring a movie about the Dalai Lama into China for his "personal" use, but not for showing to Chinese citizens.

Then, I asked if an American could enter China with copies of the State Department report on human rights in China. This, he suggested, might also be permissible for "personal" use only.

"Yes," I said, "but what if what I want to personally do with it is hand it over to a Chinese journalist so they can print it in a Chinese newspaper?

"Do you think this is a personal matter?" asked Wang.

"Well, I am a journalist," I said. "I take journalism personally. Could I bring it in and hand it over to a Chinese journalist so he could print it in a Chinese newspaper?"

"Terry, the Chinese position on the U.S. State Department’s report is clear," said Wang.
"It’s against such a report, and each and every time after the coming out of such report, the Chinese foreign ministry will issue a statement making its position clear. It has also been the Chinese government’s position to call for the U.S. State Department to stop issuing such report."

"So," I said, "an American would not be allowed to hand over a copy of the report to a Chinese journalist?"

"Again, as I understand," said Wang, "no material — I mean according to that regulation — no material that is in violation of Chinese law is supposed to be allowed to enter into the country."

"And that would cover the State Department human rights report?" I asked.

"Well, I think I have made it clear," said Wang.

I asked him how the Chinese government would determine that an American arriving at the Beijing airport with a copy of the State Department report on human rights in China intended it only for his "personal" use and was not going to hand it over to Chinese journalists.

"Well, Terry," said Wang, "I think the people at the customs and border check at the Chinese airports are very much professional. They know how to handle the situation, I think."