Beijing’s Forbidden City is barely visible when another sandstorm, the second one since March 15, hit the Chinese capital. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing and sweeping tracts of northern China suffered dangerous levels of air pollution last weekend when another sandstorm hit the region. The capital city’s squares and skyscrapers were barely visible as the second sandstorm in a month kept people off the streets. 

The adverse weather forced Beijing into a fresh lockdown, with authorities issuing shelter-in-place warnings and shutting schools on Monday.

Under a heavy cloud – a mixture of sand, dust and smog from factories and vehicle exhausts – even reporters with government mouthpieces like the People’s Daily lamented that having largely banished coronavirus from the city, no one had imagined Beijing would be locked down and masks and goggles would again be in tight supply.  

Other than Beijing, far-flung regions – from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Harbin in northeastern Heilongjiang province – were all cloaked in an apocalypse-like pale yellow haze unseen in years. Photos and video clips posted on social media showed sandstorms encroaching on towns and villages.

The National Meteorological Center said all provinces north of the Yangtze River had been affected by the most intense spell of dust storms in a decade. 

State media said shifting sands in Mongolia led to a sharp increase in sandstorms, which show no respect for borders, and the grit traveled as far as Beijing and even central and eastern cities like Wuhan and Shanghai.

Chinese scientists believe the storms likely brewed in the massive Gobi desert in southern Mongolia, which is almost three times the size of California, as well as the brushland on its periphery which stretches into China’s Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Ningxia provinces.

While stressing the storms were a natural thing, official media including the China News Service and state broadcaster China Central Television, among others, all alluded to Mongolia’s “destructive” mining industry and desertification from unregulated animal husbandry, where cattle graze on retreating grasslands on the edge of deserts. 

“Beijing and other northern cities are somehow bearing the consequences when Mongolia fails to protect its fragile, precarious environment,” read a piece in the Beijing Daily that also highlighted the point that the capital’s hard-won progress in cleaning up its air could be undone overnight by factors beyond China’s border and control. 

The article also estimated that the two storms since March 15 could have brought 10,000 tons of sand to the city, as many buildings, including the Tiananmen Gate and the sprawling terminal at the brand-new Daxing Airport, had been covered in grime. 

Eric Mer, an associate professor with the Peking University’s School of Governance, told Asia Times that he could barely see high-rise buildings from his office and the state media’s bid to shift much of the blame to Mongolia may deal a blow to the ongoing energy cooperation between the two counties. 

“Perhaps Beijing did not factor in the environmental collateral damage to China when Chinese state enterprises like Shenhua Energy Group invest heavily in Mongolia’s mining sector to import coal and other resources. Beijing is merely 550 kilometers from the Mongolian border and cities like Hohhot in China’s Inner Mongolia region face even greater impact from across the border. 

“More extensive mining and extraction in Mongolia, with many projects funded by China that are close to the border, may in turn exacerbate the environmental damage. The sandstorms hitting Beijing can be a dire warning and China should consider helping Mongolia combat soil erosion and preserve grasslands and forests when desserts there are growing,” said the scholar.

Beijing was shrouded in heavy smog and dust during the past weekend. Photos: Xinhua, WeChat
Mongolia and northern China covered by smog and sand. Photo: NASA

Another report by popular WeChat channel Earth Science, backed by the Chinese National Geographic magazine, noted that Beijing would never be able to rid itself of sandstorms in the foreseeable future as “cold snaps and strong winds from Siberia keep blowing in winter and spring and the Gobi and other desserts in Mongolia nibble away at land.” 

The gloomy outlook also dovetails with the conclusion of a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences. 

Zhang Xiaoye, the academy’s lead scientist and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, wrote on the academy’s website that Beijing and northern China should brace for more maelstroms in the coming years as Mongolia and northern China may soon enter a new cycle of strong winter and spring gales, with the past 20 years of the modest wintery airstream from Mongolia and Siberia drawing to an end.

But suspicions are also rising, with some concerned citizens examining satellite images and wondering if the large swathes of desserts near Beijing in Inner Mongolia and Hebei provinces could be more plausible sources of the dust shrouding the capital. Inner Mongolia alone has 150,000 square kilometers of desserts. 

Well before the dust storms, Beijing had not seen clear skies since February, not even during the week-long parliamentary session earlier this month as smog smothered the city for weeks. What the haze failed to hide is Beijing’s mandate to keep factories humming as the top leadership pivots to spur production to fuel the economic rebound. 

The Ministry of Environment and Ecology’s latest move to dust off reforestation programs for northern China is also leaving some wondering why the previous decades-long tree-planting spree from Xinjiang to Heilongjiang, in which more than 30 million hectares of new forests had been created, according to state media, had failed to act as a buffer against the storms from Mongolia. 

“What I smell in Beijing is a pungent mixture of dust and factory and car exhaust, and I don’t think it’s just Mongolia that is to blame,” said the PKU scholar.