Desertification in China: Economic and Social Consequences

Published on Author masonw17

Nearly 27% of China’s land area is comprised of deserts. Thanks to a combination of exploitive agricultural practices, political mishaps, and changing patterns of migration, these deserts are expanding by nearly 10,000 km2 a year.  Desertification in China is particularly concerning because the entirety of China’s agricultural product comes from only 7% of its land area, much of which is located on the North China loess plateau directly threatened by land degradation. In addition, expanding deserts are now only several hundred kilometers away from large population centers, including Beijing. Much of China is already threated by regular summer sandstorms, blown east by strong continental high pressure systems. Desertification threatens to leave much of northern China uninhabitable by degrading soil
content, greatly increasing rates of erosion, limiting natural vegetation, and almost entirely eliminating the possibility of agricultural production in affected areas.

There are a number of causes for north China’s recent desertification trend. Most scientists draw attention to overgrazing of herds in semi-arid grasslands surrounding deserts, which can eliminate vegetation and leave grasslands vulnerable to wind and water driven erosion. In particular, limits on the mobility of tribespeople and their herds, imposed by both international and provincial borders and new ‘fenced ranchland’ initiatives, has contributed to severe localized overgrazing as herds spend all year on one small patch of grassland, leaving vegeatation no time to recover. In addition, overcultivation in regions only somewhat conducive to agriculture has reduced yields and led farmers to employ mechanized tilling methods and long-distance irrigation, which tear up soil and upset the natural balance in fragile ecosystems. Lastly, the government’s initiative to move large numbers of Han Chinese into predominantly minority borderlands like Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia has led to large swaths of forest being cut down to open land for agriculture. Deforestation rapidly increases the rate of wind and water erosion, and many deforested plots can be farmed for only a few decades before they are retaken by the desert.

The Chinese government has attempted to combat desertification through two major initiatives: firstly, removing residents, usually ethnic minorities engaged in livestock herding, from vulnerable semi-arid border regions. Moving members of ethnic minorities, including the restive Muslim Uighurs, from their ancestral land and livelihood to urban or suburban centers has created serious unrest. Ethnic Mongolians, moved from their traditional lands in Inner Mongolia for fear of overgrazing, have increasingly protested the government’s decision as a way to control ethnic minorities and secure traditional lands for their own use. The Chinese government has also attempted to combat desertification by building a ‘great green wall’ of trees in a huge east-west belt running from central Xinyang to western Manchuria. This project, begun in the 1950’s, has had equivocal results at best, often resulting in village cadres receiving funds which never are actually used to plant trees. Lack of expertise also led government officials to plant huge numbers of water-hungry pine and poplar trees in these vulnerable environments during the 1960’s and 70’s, contributing to the present rate of desertification.

The remoteness of many of the regions affected by desertification has allowed by the Communist Party and the Chinese public to ignore this issue for many years. However, as desertification increasingly threatens the fertile loess plateau and population centers of the Yellow River valley, the nation faces pressure to act quickly to save vulnerable lands. In addition, mounting ethnic tensions promise serious repercussions for continued inadequate policy responses to this pressing issue.

Sources Consulted

China’s growing deserts a major political risk

12 Responses to Desertification in China: Economic and Social Consequences

  1. The issue of unintended ethnic cleansing practices by the Chinese government is an interesting one to think about. A common school of thought in international relations considers environmental degradation to be the greatest threat to world peace over the next century. It seems that China can join West Africa as a potential hotbed of future conflict over limited resources.

    • The displacement of the Uyghurs is particularly concerning, as violent separatism is already a pervasive problem in Uyghar lands. The government seems dead-set on continuing to agitate this particular Muslim minority, despite the failure of these policies to quell terrorism or anger in the region. While I understand the government’s motives better in this situation, one can’t help but think that moving a population such as this one could serve as a recruiting tool for extremists, as well as locate many of said extremists in population centers outside of their home province.

    • This is a really good point: I think that the Chinese government is pretty aware that the greatest risk in environmental degradation is the social consequences of large scale displacement, long before lack of arable land becomes a meaningful risk.

  2. This is quite an interesting issue to address. The expanding desert area due to poor agricultural practices seems reminiscent of the U.S. Dust bowl in the early- to mid – 20th century. Due to the political and cultural tensions throughout China, however, the situation seem much more complex than its U.S. parallel. According to Forbes, China’s middle class has shown an increasing affinity towards imported food products. ( It would be interesting to see if this increase in desertification has influenced this increased affinity for imported food products.

    • As I read this article, I also thought about the US Dust Bowl, and how China has experienced many of the same economic growing pains the US has over the years. I wonder if the Chinese government will look to how the US handled these struggles in order to craft creative policy responses and attempt to halt the continued desertification of China’s loess plateau.

      • Interestingly , I’ve never read how the US actually came back from the Dust Bowl. I wonder if large scale migration simply cut out the over-cultivation, or if specific replenishment activities were necessary.

  3. An interesting aspect of this development is the change in demand for food made in China. As the population has expanded, and then migrated to cities, demand for foreign food has flown through the roof (see which says that US food exports to China in 2013 were $26 billion). An interesting question is whether the Chinese see this shift in food preferences as a cause of the lack of arable land or a result of it. That decision will shape how they respond to the land crisis you mention.

    • This is an interesting perspective and I think it shows an interesting dichotomy at play of diminishing resources paired with increasing demand and consumption. As China continues to urbanize and develop, but simultaneously using more resources and degrading land, it will be interesting to see how stable the country will be in the future. I think to answer your question, the shift in food preferences in both due to an increase in GDP per capita (income) and the lack of arable land. People can buy more and there are less resources to go around, resulting in higher prices.

  4. This is another interesting scenario that falls under the shadow of what people see as more prevalent issues for China (gender inbalance, pollution, etc). I believe this is a cyclical issue that China has dealt with consistently for thousands of years, and they always seem to figure out innovative approaches to this solution. It is a matter of putting in the necessary attention and effort. However, I do know that Beijing is sinking a few inches every year with desertification partly as a result, and North China is no doubt the most vulnerable to this issue.

    • I agree. We learned in Prof. Bello’s History of China that the North China plain was once quite verdant, but that it has been becoming increasingly arid for the past five to ten thousand years. However, China might be nearing the point of no return, particularly given that North China’s population is much larger today than ever before.

  5. This is really interesting and something I had never thought of. It’s an interesting juxtaposition because this seems like an old fashion problem for a rapidly modernizing country. As previously stated, there could be some major ethnical implications as well. Will the central government go through great lengths to help those who are affected or will they do the bare minimum?

    • I think it’s safe to say that they’ll do the bare minimum, but that might be quite a bit in order to calm restive minorities in desterifying regions and preserve valuable population centers in Northeast China.