As desertification in China increases and government efforts to stop the sand’s advance falter, serious political risks are emerging from hub to hinterland.
When most people think of China’s landscape, they envision rivers and rice paddies, yet much of China does not conform to this image. From Tibet and Xinjiang, to the Russian border, the majority of Chinese territory is comprised of desert, grasslands, or arid steppe.
These regions only fell under official Chinese rule during the Qing dynasty, and for most of China’s 5,000 years as a civilization, dynasties and kingdoms have centered around the south-eastern river valleys and coasts.
China’s outer regions are resource rich, yet they help comprise the 2.6 million km², or one third of China, that is classified as desert or wasteland. Desertification in China is a major problem for Beijing, as the country’s deserts are growing, threatening environmental, economic, and political stability.
The Green Wall of China
Following the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the country embarked on history’s largest nation building exercise. To this end, vast swathes of China’s forests were felled for fuel, lumber, and paper production for the billions of little red books and proclamations emanating from Beijing. This process was accelerated in the 1960s, as forest and grassland cover shrank, increasing the rate of desertification.
As the deserts grew, the government recognized the threat and began a gargantuan reforestation effort in 1978, planting 66 billion trees to date. This project – colloquially dubbed the ‘Green Wall of China’ – is a multi-generational mega project slated to be completed by 2050.
The end target is the creation of 405 million hectares of new forest – covering 42% of China’s territory – and increasing global forest cover by 10%. The goal of this new tree line is to prevent erosion and desertification by creating a barrier of stable soil across the north of the country.
While the intentions of this audacious project were noble, the lack of a proper environmental assessment, and an over-emphasis of planting quotas has actually exacerbated, not mitigated, the problem.
How planting trees created a desert
The government introduced fast-growing, but non-native species such as pine and poplar, while simultaneously rooting out local keystone species like sea buckthorn during the 1980s. The removal of sea buckthorn, removed a species playing a vital role in holding the soil together, thus increasing erosion.
The introduced pine and poplar are also very thirsty species, and introducing billions of them into an already arid environment, sunk the water table up to ten times below its original depth. This in turn killed off the shorter roots of prairie grasses, causing further desertification.
This set of events created a feedback loop in which greater sand storms and a lack of water suffocated many of the non-native trees planted by the Chinese. Furthermore, since these trees were derived from cuttings, their life expectancy (of around 40 years) was greatly reduced. Consequently, huge swathes of trees planted in previous decades are dying of old age, all at the same time.
Add to this the dangers of monoculture planting – a billion poplar trees died from blight in 2000 – and the result is that only 15% of the trees planted since 1949 are still alive (and only 33% of those planted from 1970 onwards).
Beijing reaps a bitter harvest
The unintended consequences of China’s tree planting initiative have seen a significant increase in the size of the country’s deserts. Alongside the Gobi, China is now home to the Taklimaka desert, the world’s second largest wandering desert. Consequently, the spread of deserts has seen more than half the land in provinces such as Gansu rendered inhospitable.
The growing deserts have also added a new dimension to China’s pollution problem, as giant sandstorms descend on the country from March to May, affecting cities such as Beijing, itself only a few hundred kilometers from the encroaching desert.
Sandstorms not only add a new subcategory for hazardous air quality, but also pick up contaminants in the polluted soil of China’s industrial north, raining toxic dust on major cities.
This only further reduces the already low number of clear sky days in Beijing, fueling protests and unrest over the region’s pollution. Pollution, alongside corruption (which often fosters the former) is the largest single cause of domestic protests in China. Beijing faces a serious threat, from pollution triggered unrest as its economy slows and consumer spending is no longer sufficient to placate the population. Government claims about decreasing pollution fall flat in the face of a nation shrouding particulate storms.
Alongside the cumulative, long-term health effects of sandstorms, they are also serious natural disasters. In 1999, 85 people died in China’s deadliest sandstorm, and a massive storm in 2010 affected some 270 million people across 16 provinces.
Desertification threatens China’s economic ambitions
Encroaching deserts threaten 400 million people in China already struggling with unproductive marginal agricultural land and water shortages. In Gansu province, the Hongyashan reservoir – Asia’s largest – is undergoing a 50% capacity increase to 148 million m³ in order to alleviate water shortages caused by desertification.
Sand storms have also severely undermined the reservoir’s efficiency, as decades of storms have deposited 33 million m³ of silt into the reservoir, filling a third of the dam’s capacity.
Further east, China’s regional economic aspirations are threatened by greater desertification. Specifically, the Chinese government’s Silk Road infrastructure projects connecting Central Asia are at risk of being swallowed by the desert. For instance, China has had to build forested windbreaks and shelters from 2003 to 2006, to protect a 522 km highway in Xinjiang.
Geography fuels ethnic tensions in China
To add to the central government’s worries, the areas most threatened by desertification in China are almost coterminous with the regions inhabited by the country’s (often restive) ethnic minorities. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, local environmental concerns are leading to ethnic unrest as traditional livelihoods are threatened by both the encroaching desert and Han monopolization of viable land.
Increasingly forced to rely on marginal land, Tibetans and Uyghurs have yet another reason to agitate against Beijing. This only fuels the government’s paranoia regarding ethno-regional unrest, leading to more repressive security apparatuses.
The problem for Beijing is that while both Tibet and Xinjiang already have ample causes for anger, desertification is leading to unrest in another region, Inner Mongolia. Since 2003, 480,000 people in Inner Mongolia have been relocated in the name of fighting desertification. Ethnic Mongolians are protesting these actions, as well as government bans on grazing and herding to protect vulnerable, sand-fixing grasslands.
Ethnic Mongolians are claiming these practices unfairly target them and their livelihoods, as livestock grazing has not created this environmental disaster. Moreover, while ethnic Mongolians are chafing under the grazing ban, ecologically destructive practices such as strip mining go unchecked.
The last thing Beijing needs is for ethnic Mongolians to join Tibetans and Uyghurs as a third major resistive element in the country’s hinterlands. China already fears and suffers from violence from cross-border Uyghur separatists. It cannot afford an ethnic Mongolian insurgency based in neighbouring Mongolia.
The Great Wall did not keep the Mongols out the first time; at this rate the Green Wall won’t either.