On Saturday, more than 300 Muslims boarded a chartered plane at Beijing Capital International Airport bound for Saudi Arabia, kicking off their once-in-a-lifetime, month-long Hajj as reported by the Global Times.
They are the last batch of Chinese pilgrims heading to Islamic holy cities this year for the annual celebrations which occur during the 12th Islamic month.
This year, more than 12,800 Chinese Muslims will join about 2 million pilgrims from around the world to perform the auspicious life changing pilgrimage.
The China Islamic Association, a national Muslim organization under the supervision of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), organizes Chinese pilgrims’ visits.
The delegation of Chinese pilgrims land in Medina, the second holiest city in Islam, stay there for four or five days before traveling on to Makkah for the formal processions of the pilgrimage.
Going on a pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the five tasks all Muslims are meant to undertake in their lifetimes. It is customary for all worshipers to attempt to make the pilgrimage at least once in their life as long as they are able to do so, physically and financially.
As overseas travel becomes increasingly convenient and affordable for ordinary Chinese, demand is growing among the Muslim community, especially in the western regions of the country.
China has official policies to manage the hajj and all potential Chinese pilgrims to Makkah have to first go through an application process.
First, one must go to the management committee of a local mosque to acquire proof of one’s Muslim identity, which should then be submitted to the local Islamic Association. Once approved by the association, the potential pilgrims have to have their health checked to ensure they are up to taking the long journey. Next, the applicant must pay travel fees to the association and then receive training.
According to hajj application websites, each pilgrim must pay a bit more than 40,000 yuan ($5,998) in advance to cover the entire trip including their transport, meals, religious garments and insurance.
Anything that’s left over, which usually amounts to a few hundred yuan, is given back to the hajji after their return to China and the balance sheet for each year is publicized on each provincial Islamic Association’s website.
The training they receive includes China’s hajj policies and regulations, discipline related to taking a trip abroad, and religious knowledge about the hajj. The hajj of the China Islamic Association said in an e-mail:
“The aim of the training is to allow the pilgrims to understand how their journey is being organized and to enhance their sense of unity to ensure they have a safe and fruitful hajj.”
Wang Jingxian, a Beijing Muslim who went on the pilgrimage in 2012, said the experience enriched her and inspired her to practice stricter self-discipline and help others more enthusiastically.
Although there is no age requirement for pilgrims in Islamic teachings, the association requires that pilgrims should be over 18 years old, though some western provinces set the bar at 25 or 35.
In some provinces and regions, those over 70 years old are required to sign a declaration saying that they take responsibility for any health issues they experience while on hajj.
The application process is very competitive, especially in western regions with large Muslim populations, even though the number of Chinese pilgrims has been dramatically expanding over the decades.
Wei Zeming, who went on hajj in 2009 as the head of a multi-province group of several hundred pilgrims, said that in eastern areas like Beijing it only takes one year to get approval to go on the pilgrimage while an applicant living in an area with large Muslim communities may well spend four of five years on the waiting list.
A 2015 Foreign Policy article claims that applicants in Indonesia, the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population, can wait from 12 to 17 years to take the hajj.
This year China has sent 12,800 pilgrims on the hajj, and the quota is split up among 30 provincial-level Islamic administrations.
Among the regions, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region takes about one-fourth of the total, followed by the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which is allocated 2,700 places this year.
China has just over 20 million Muslims, according to the 2013 population census. A total of 10 ethnic groups including the Hui (with a population of 9.81 million) and the Uyghur (8.39 million) are majority Muslim.
The allocation of pilgrim quotas to provinces and regions is decided by the SARA according to the number of applications in each province, the hajj department of the China Islamic Association said. China’s national quota is set by Saudi Arabia.
The department said the total number of pilgrims China sends each year has hovered between 12,000 and 14,500 in recent years.
Following a deadly 2015 stampede in Makkah which left at least 1,300 dead including four Chinese, Saudi Arabia lowered the total number of pilgrims for 2016, receiving 1.32 million pilgrims from abroad that year, among them 14,500 Chinese. China sent 15,000 pilgrims in 2015, and 14,500 in 2014.
The journeys of Chinese hajjis are entirely taken care of by a group of government employees. More than 300 workers with the China Islamic Association are dedicated to arranging everything for the pilgrimage, including applying for travelers’ visas and booking their flights. Some of them travel to Saudi Arabia beforehand to arrange hotels, meals and buses.
China has established a cooperation mechanism with the Saudi Arabian government and Islamic organs. Wei said:
“We are the best country in the world when it comes to organizing the pilgrimage. Everything is ready for the hajjis before they arrive. Chinese hajjis are the happiest in the world, they don’t have to worry about anything.”
Individually organized pilgrimages to Makkah are not allowed during the hajj period, though individual tours to other Saudi Arabian cities are still possible at that time.
Wei said some pious elderly Muslims are so excited to go on the hajj that they borrow money from others in order to pay the fees, and that there is some peer pressure in the Muslim community to go on hajj, which are both “not normal,” he said.
He also said that there have been fatally ill people who tried to die in Makkah as they believe it is a righteous act.
However, a spokesperson for the hajj department said that he has never heard of anyone trying to die of natural causes while on hajj.
The road to Makkah has been a bumpy one for Chinese Muslims. Their long journey has been restricted by both the great distance between China and Saudi Arabia and the sometimes rocky diplomatic relations between the nations.
Historically, it would have taken years for a Chinese Muslim to travel to Makkah, either via the ancient Silk Road or the maritime route from the South China Sea all the way to the Red Sea. Therefore there are only a few recorded instances of Chinese going on hajj during pre-modern Chinese history.
From the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a total of 152 Chinese Muslims went on pilgrimage to Mecca, organized by the Chinese Muslim Association.
The Cultural Revolution almost wiped out religious activities in the country. When the political turmoil came to an end, the Communist Party of China announced that religious freedom would be one of the country’s basic principles, and sent a delegation in 1979 to warm ties with Middle Eastern countries. However, the delegation found that their task was difficult due to the international Muslim community’s antagonism toward China.
Despite opposition from some countries, a delegation of five Chinese Muslims were warmly received by the Muslim World League the next year, even though China at that time had no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, where the league is headquartered.
Li Huaying, a Chinese-Arabic translator and one of the five members of the Chinese delegation in 1980, said in his article Concise Hajj History of Chinese Muslims that they were also invited to a state banquet. The warm welcome in Saudi Arabia ensured that the delegation successfully finished their hajj. As of 1980, China had sent 22 delegations on the pilgrimage, but each with only several members.
In 1980, the Muslim association began to accept ordinary Muslims’ applications to go on the hajj. In 1986, more than 2,000 Chinese Muslims went to Mecca.
China and Saudi Arabia established diplomatic ties in 1990, which further facilitated the growth in Chinese hajjis. May Allah accept from all the pilgrims coming from the around world and may He protect them all types of harm.