Rise into Dust: Governing Land and Weather Systems in Contemporary China

Since a season of successive massive dust storms in Beijing in the early 2000s, broad political experiments in mitigating dust events have, across the capital’s airshed, reconfigured the problem of land degradation as one of large-scale weather intervention. Dust storms revealed the potential of large tracts of the continental interior to become airborne. Downwind of China, they have also sparked scientific, political, and technical attempts to make sense of China’s rise as a story of both political economic ascendance and the literal rise of land into the sky. This essay examines the interface of terrestrial and atmospheric processes as it conditions experiments in governing weather systems and phenomena associated with Reform and Opening.

In early April 2001, two closely spaced pulses of the Siberian jetstream blew into semi-arid Inner Mongolia, whipping surface sands into the air. The western reaches of the region, at the frontier with Mongolia, were bare of grass. The convergence of years of drought, a mounting crisis of land degradation, and an unusually warm winter left vast tracts of the region’s sands exposed in the early spring. In these conditions, an early thaw of sandy landscapes coincided with the onset of strong seasonal winds. An inbound temperate cyclone system blasted against the loosened earth, peeling the land from the ground as a dusty emission, and moving it as part of a rapidly evolving weather system. The two pulses of wind converged into a complex of airborne dust that rushed towards Beijing. It swirled, over the next weeks, into a single storm whose geophysics and geochemistry would evolve along its planetary course.

Over the month, the cyclone surged eastward, filling seasonal airstreams with bursts of earthy colour. Its yellow rivulets moved in a complex trajectory of smooth lines and crinkling twists. These aerolitic choreographies—to borrow from Andrea Ballestero’s formulation (2019)—reshaped a material sensibility conditioned by the sense that land is a stable entity. As the storm moved across northern China, coal smoke, soot, volatile organic compounds, and the industrial effluent of China’s booming economy entrained into its mix, glomming on to particles of aerosolised earth, and altering the geochemistry of the storm. The winds quickly breached the dotted line of the Great Wall and, two days after forming in Inner Mongolia, fell over Beijing as a bout of dust weather—one of that season’s 11 major dust events.

The weather had changed. The 2001 storms marked a moment in the stunning reframing of state environmental concern. They pointedly marked a shifting mood, both public and official, phasing the well-established ‘develop now and clean up later’ approach of earlier decades of Reform and Opening into something else, still undetermined. The increase in large-scale dust events—that is, the increasing propensity for earth and air to shift into permutations that obviated any clear distinction between land and sky—could be loosely tracked against the shifting environmental winds of different moments in the official historiography of China’s socialism: weather patterns and political temporalities swooshed into one another. In the cataclysmic cycles of dynastic succession, anomalous weather—drought, flood, storms—could be leveraged politically as meteorological signals of divine will; the Mandate of Heaven on which dynastic legitimacy was based was, in this way, perched precariously on weather reports.

As 2001’s season of dust storms was beginning to settle, wild speculation exploded across Beijing over the causes of and potential solutions for this dangerous mineral weather. Planners openly fretted over the expanses of mobile desert sands lurking and lurching at the threshold of the capital. The possibility of Beijing’s burial by advancing dunes or particulate matter unloading from the sky was openly discussed in official circles and on state media. Catastrophic seasonal dust storms and a mounting crisis of particulate air pollution that was quickly becoming a signature of Chinese cities appeared as meteorological aspects of Reform and Opening—a time most often narrated through rapid economic development. Indeed, in ‘the first decade of the new millennium dust storms and air pollution evolved into one of the most widely and controversially debated environmental issues in the People’s Republic of China’ (Stein 2015: 321).

Dust in Motion

Moving dust, and the meteorological shifts it portended, forced a pause in the central government’s environmental reckoning as it rearranged the relation of the Chinese capital and the country’s distant interior into multiple points on a strange new weather system trajectory. With the country on the threshold of a long-awaited ‘Chinese Century’ (Pieke 2014), these storms—in all their noxious particulate density—were the country’s interior passing over itself. In its surge towards the battered capital, the crisis of dust had become a reliable feature of a strange new meteorological normalcy: modern weather. In the spring of 2001, the Chinese Meteorological Agency noted that northeast Asia was in the middle of its most intense season of dust storms, in both intensity and frequency, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Well into the third vertiginous decade of Reform and Opening, in 2001, Beijing was pummelled by more than ten consecutive dust storm events, sweeping in on winter and spring winds from the desiccating interior of the Chinese continent. The vaunted ascent of China—the long goal and raison d’état of multiple modern Chinese states—found its curious meteorological double in the land phasing into sky and passing over itself as a continent of dust. These two rising Chinas—one geopolitical and the other geological—roiled together in the parade of dust events that, by 2001, had come to mark the northeast Asian spring through the erratic time-spaces of a China lifted by and falling out along the patterned wind.

What is ‘territory’ when the land that undergirds it can become part of a weather formation? Environmental governance—long oriented around land degradation and the shifting more-than-human economies of grazing, farming, and foraging in Inner Mongolia—was becoming part of a new problem: how to keep inland territory solid and, more specifically, how to re-engineer the social and geophysical features of China’s interior so they would not generate dust storms that could reach Beijing and other important places. That is, environmental governance aiming to confront the conditions of dust storm formation would replicate a familiar geography of power—the centre and its peripheries—but now through the question of environmental vulnerability to weather; and governance would come to see land itself as a potential dust event. That is, terra firma had become a goal, to be tentatively achieved through experiments in re-engineering the physical, social, ecological, and other properties of the earth, always with a view to its interaction with potential Beijing-bound winds. Solid land was only one possible phase of physical matter.

Guangzongsi, Inner Mongolia during a sand storm. PC: Martin Angerer (CC), Flickr.com.
Guangzongsi, Inner Mongolia during a sand storm. PC: Martin Angerer (CC), Flickr.com.

If a dust storm indicates the capacity of land to phase into an aerosol, of a Chinese desert upwind of Beijing to pass over it as a desert in the sky, what could ‘weather’ mean as an emerging category of political attention and anxiety?

The first decades of the twenty-first century were increasingly aligned, politically and meteorologically, with major dust events and attempts to modulate them. The remaking of the weather—long a political goal—would shape new experiments in governing and living in Reform and Opening as ad hoc meteorological practices. Forestry officials, state environmental engineers, and cadres dispersed across Beijing’s airshed would be tasked with devising methods for binding the earth to the ground. And for herders in the Inner Mongolian cradle of dust storms, artists, and city denizens in the capital, and those far downwind of China, being swept into these strange new weather worlds created new ways of interacting with space, state, and landscape (Zee 2021).

In western Inner Mongolia, long-running experiments in sand control and dune fixation—developed to stem the advance of mobile deserts—were redeployed as the basic infrastructural installations for the engineering of a dust-proof land–weather system. Straw grids and other windbreaking and sand-catching techniques joined large-scale fencing—already in place thanks to sedentarisation and land reform campaigns since the 1980s (Williams 2002)—to transform the earth’s surface, which was now imagined as an interface with dust-kicking winds. Developed originally to protect marginal farmland from sand encroachment and to keep creeping sands from causing derailments on desert-crossing railway lines, these techniques were part of a broader governmental shift in orthodoxy that continually related the transformation of local land in such so-called cradles of dust storms to the eventual remediation of meteorological phenomena downwind.

Alongside physical installations in the landscape-turned-dustscape, existing programs of socialist redistribution, policing, and government were redeployed, on an experimental basis, in the development of potential model approaches to transform herders into forestry and landscape engineers. As official explanations of land degradation have long targeted herders as ecologically irrational land users—a designation tinged irrevocably with ethnic and racial derision—the remaking of local economies was central to state attempts to quickly replace herding with enterprises that would ultimately help reshape the geophysical features of former pasturelands. They also sought to exorcise the spectre of social instability involved in the attempt to rapidly transition herding into more ‘rational’ land uses that would support the modes of land–air transformation that were deemed necessary to protect Beijing, several hundred kilometres downwind.

Governing the Weather

I suggest that all these interventions and logics are illustrative of the emergence of a specific notion of weather—and not simply ‘pollution’—not just as an atmospheric problem to be resolved, but also as part of a new way of thinking about and governing the relationships between land, air, (often minority) populations, plants, animals, and infrastructure across large distances. This is because questions of meteorological emergence—dealing with strange new atmospheres—disclose and demand modes of state concern that do not resolve into the anthropocentric policy mechanisms of punishing ‘polluters’. The notion of pollution relies on a much more discreet sense of locatable human agency that largely obscures the complex interactions of history, landscape, and air patterns while kicking particles into the air, where they are distributed across a wide scale and into bodies of all different kinds.

Changing the weather is an existential concern for planet and state. A nascent politics for controlling airborne particulate matter—codified and technicalised in an air pollution plan for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, occasioned by the spectacle of a dense sky—took shape alongside longstanding anti-desertification and sand-control programs in China’s upwind areas, addressing different moments in the aerosol dynamic of a dust storm. This more general demand occasioned in the shifting gradients of urban particulate matter should be understood both politically and geophysically as an attempt to manage and engineer the weather—the historically dynamic contents, geophysics, and relations of atmosphere and its relentless imbrication with social and political life. Such weather transformations are evident across Asia, as in the cloud manipulation programs in China (Chien et al. 2017) and the broader history of climatic control that Yuriko Furuhata (2022) traces through Japanese imperialism and Cold War relations. In this, dust becomes not simply a curious material signature of a changing weather system, but also one site among others where the weather is increasingly approached as something that demands manipulation, modulation, and intervention.

Dust had become an increasingly quasi-existential problem of the Chinese contemporary: inauspicious clouds. Along dust-transporting airstreams that subjected prosperous coastal China to the outcomes of land degradation in the interior, the geo-meteorology of dust was prompting experiments and reconfigurations of Chinese life and politics; if land and air could fall into a kaleidoscope of terrestrial and meteorological permutations, so, too, could the worlds that would take shape around them. Strange weather made the formation and dynamics of dust storms into an architecture for a political apparatus that drew together disparate sites across the airstreams and weather-worlds of northern China as moments in an aerosol process, punctuated at points where broken land could phase into dust weather.

A Weather Report

Let us close by considering the weather report as a genre of governmental reimagination of the objects of its concern and potential intervention. And how tracing out weather systems could generate a set of scales and relations that muddle political designs on the ‘environment’ that limit it to the stability of territory, at the expense of the air above.

7 April 2001: Two days after the formation of the dust event in China’s interior, the dust cloud arrived over the major cities of the northeast, where, at daybreak, it was seen as an anti-optical event, with ground-level observers describing the dust by what they could not see. The density and intensity of the dust cloud made buildings disappear and eclipsed the morning sun. At the same time, NASA’s Earth Observing Satellite registered the cloud of dust from near-earth orbit, recording it as a continent in the sky, rising and crinkling into its own airborne topography and occluding the China below. Ridges and valleys formed in the sky, topped with their own clouds, all furrowed in radial reference to the cyclone-eye of the weather continent.

8–10 April 2001: By what aerosol scientists positioned just outside Chinese territorial waters described as sheer good luck, the fourth experiment of the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry Program—the Asian Pacific Regional Aerosol Characterisation Experiment—coincided with the April 2001 event. It caught the cloud as it passed over the Pacific ground experiment stations and monitoring sites in Asia downwind of China, at Gosan on South Korea’s Jeju Island and Iwakuni Airfield in Japan. Combining aircraft-mounted monitoring, satellite photography, and Lidar, scientists were able to collect extensive data on the content, trajectory, and chemical-physical dynamics of this dust event (Huebert 2003). They quickly characterised it as a model event to describe Chinese land as part of a weather system—a meteorology contingent on several geophysical, historical, and political factors. The continent’s interior passed, aerosolised, over its downwind neighbours, and scientists collected it as raw material to characterise China’s rise into dust. Having gathered traces of China’s interior as dust, mixed with industrial effluent from across the mainland, experimental characterisation of the aerosol recast Asia as a landmass that is also a highly specific set of geochemical signals.

Days later, South Korean diplomats, brokering the renormalisation of political relations with their upwind neighbour, would remark on this storm as profound material proof of the intractable and inescapable reality of northeast Asian relations, folding the geophysics of storms into the geopolitics of the Cold War, which continues, formally, to this day across East Asia. The wind and its earths passing over regional seas on whose names no-one can agree.

14 April 2001: Aircraft observations over the Pacific Northwest concluded that aerosol particulate matter that would eventually be called the 2001 Asian Dust Event had passed into US airspace at least two days previously and would continue to scatter over the continental United States as a rain of Asian land. It was eventually determined that for the duration of the event, it would introduce a mass of particulate matter over the United States equivalent to all domestic daily emissions (Jaffe et al. 2003: 501).

18 April 2001: The Denver Post reported on a column of dust 13 kilometres thick over the Rocky Mountains as the ‘latest import from China’ (Schrader 2001), colliding the anxieties of a de-industrialised heartland with a nascent meteorological nativism—the pre-echo of trade wars to come. The cloud, as it traced out trans-Pacific and hemispheric airstreams, extended to more than 3,200 kilometres—the largest documented dust event since 1979, which was the first full year of the social and political experiments in China that have come to be known as Reform and Opening. Between one massive event and another, the history of political reform and the endurance of the Chinese Communist Party were bookended by two massive clouds of earth: the weather that shifted the Chinese contemporary into the whorl of continents thrown over hemispheres.


Featured Image: Edited Aqua MODIS mosaic of a dust storm over China covering a large part of the northern section, March 2021. PC: NASA (CC), edited by Stuart Rankin, Flickr.com.


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Jerry Zee

Jerry Zee is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the High Meadows Environmental Institute at Princeton University. He is the author of Continent in Dust: Experiments in a Chinese Weather System (University of California Press, 2022).

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