Inner Mongolia’s Vanishing Grasslands

The wild grasslands of Inner Mongolia are disappearing, but that’s only the most visibly sign of a socio-ecological transformation that began a century ago.

Jonah M. Kessel, an award-winning American photographer and currently creative director for Beijing’s China Daily, has produced a visually stunning essay on desertification in Inner Mongolia and one group’s attempt to plant one million trees by 2014 as a bulwark against the insidious sands.

At first, this seems like a simple environmental story, about how over-grazing and over-population brought about this man-made disaster. However, the root of the problem, if you’ll pardon the pun, goes back a century.

In 1908, Gustaf Mannerheim, a Russian army officer, visited Inner Mongolia and found the Mongols on the verge of open rebellion. Under the ruthless settlement policy of General Yi, the military governor, Mongols were losing vast areas of land to Han Chinese newcomers without compensation.

“Swarms of Chinese,” in the words of a British diplomat at the time, began to overrun Inner Mongolia. The “speed of invasion,” he reported, was startling. Between 1899 and 1902, he saw Chinese settlers “ploughing the virgin turf” and pushing north by more than five kilometres a year.

Around this time, Peking established a special management board to control the unprecedented migration. Mannerheim called the board “Könn wu tu” or kenwutu in pinyin, meaning “reclaim weedy earth.” It was basically a department to convert wild grasslands into cultivated farmland for Han Chinese colonists.

General Yi was, Mannerheim wrote in a chapter titled “About Colonization” in his military intelligence report, as ambitious as he was greedy in implementing Peking’s colonization policy:

Plots of land are taken away from the Mongols by falsifying decrees of [the Emperor, and] are sold for a small price to Chinese colonists… Needless to say all money is transferred not to Mongol landowners but to the General and his associates. To frighten the Mongols and put an end to the increasing disturbances among them severe measures are being undertaken, which included execution of an official in Djungar [a district in Ordos]. The result was the opposite to the desired one: public unrest is increasing rapidly.

Mannerheim understood the “clearly political goal” behind the intense and forceful colonization. It was part of China’s plan to consolidate its ethnic borderlands “and destroy the semi-independent and uncertain position of present Mongolia… and lead to the end of independent Mongolia.”

A century later, I visited Inner Mongolia (Chapter 17 in my book) and found that much of the grasslands have been converted into farmland. Only 4 million people, about 17 percent of the region’s population, are ethnic Mongols too.

So many Chinese farmers dig up so much of Inner Mongolia that most sandstorms in Beijing, some six hundred kilometres to the east, occur during March and April, when farmers till their chalky fields for the spring planting. Vicious windstorms blow away the topsoil, leading to horrendous erosion and gritty squalls throughout Northern China.

Besides the vanishing grasslands, the Mongol’s way of life and language are also disappearing, slowly choking under Beijing’s ethnic minority and development policies. Although no Mongol openly criticized Beijing, both a folklorist and linguist whom I interviewed explained that the Mongol language is declining and is also absorbing a growing number of Mandarin words. Mongols who openly criticize Beijing face persecution, such as one activist named Sodmongol.

While Beijing’s colonization of Inner Mongolia may be an environmental catastrophe, it has been a geopolitical success and is a model for the continued migration of Han Chinese into Tibetan and Turkic Muslim territories and their absorption into the bosom of the “motherland.”


  • Timo

    Sounds similar to anglosaxons colonializing northern america some 150 years back and the sandstorms round great depression in 1930s. “Pata kattilaa soimaa, musta kylki kummallakin. ”

    Just to mention, Mannerheim liberated Finland from the bolshevic Russian rule. That migh explain his points of view on Han Chinese. Hower, it’s pretty universal that more powerful nations exploit the resources of less powerful nations. Colonialism.

  • Eric Enno Tamm

    Agreed. As I write in my book, the Han Chinese are using the model of colonization from North America and applying it to their hinterlands. In their case, the Tibetans, Mongols and Muslims are the “savages” who need to be integrated into Chinese civilization.