Surrounded by hills and plains, close to the Mongolian Plateau, Beijing suffers from extremes of temperature. Every year after the harsh, cold winter, the sandstorm from the Gobi desert invades the city as spring approaches. The entire city is covered in dust and turns grey, colouring human life.
It is the most miserable time of the year. Year in and year out, local residents have learnt to deal with this dusty season by covering their head and face with a scarf or wearing a mask.
This year, the sandstorm and smog was said to be so bad that even Mao Zedong, the long-dead chairman of the Communist Party, had a face mask put on his portrait hanging on Tiananmen − the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It drew the attention of the world media. The smog crisis in China's grand capital has become a serious international issue, and The Guardian called it "airpocalypse".
Although some may laugh at the Mao mask as a joke, for people living in Beijing, the smog and sandstorm is sadly a reality of life. Early this year, according to Beijing's municipal environmental authorities, the city's pollution reached dangerous levels. On January 13, the municipal meteorological station issued the city's first orange fog warning as smog enveloped the city. "Oh, it's that time of the year again," some friends sighed, and they blamed the bad, seasonal weather.
Two weeks later, the smog continued, thousands of flights were cancelled, forcing the official China Daily to admit that Beijing was no longer a liveable city.
I am told over and over again that the smog in Beijing is caused by a combination of coal and vehicle emissions, as well the strong dust storms that blow in from the Gobi desert. The latter is said to be getting worse due to climate change, and the rapid economic development in recent years is also blamed. As a result, the city proposed a ban on older vehicles, on factories pumping out pollutants, and has begun fining street vendors who barbecue food outside on smoggy days.
Beijing residents used to be compensated for this bleak and dusty winter-and-spring misery by inhaling the aroma of roasted chestnuts and sweet potato, but this year as the street vendors were chased away on environmental grounds, local people were even deprived of this joy in life. Yet, I know smog and sandstorms are not recent phenomena. In fact, the problem was much worse during the Mao era, long before there were private cars or even food sellers on the streets of Beijing.
The environmental disaster China is experiencing now goes back to the time of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. To transform China into the dreamed-of industrial superpower Mao envisaged, it needed a huge amount of steel. Forests were destroyed as trees were felled to feed backyard furnaces. Many of the mountainous regions throughout China were deforested.
Deforestation had devastating consequences, causing regular soil erosion and sandstorms. In some areas, it turned paddy fields into sandy beaches and farmland into bogs. The Gobi desert might be a natural phenomenon, but the massive deforestation during the Great Leap Forward enlarged it.
A number of documents I came cross in archives in China show that in the time of the Great Leap Forward, at least one third of China's open forests were chopped down and one fifth of closed forests were destroyed in areas immediately surrounding the Gobi.
In western Shaanxi province, at least 60 per cent of trees, which were originally planted to protect the railways, were chopped down. In major irrigation regions by the Jing, Wei and Luo rivers, more than 30,000 trees along the canals were felled. In Gansu province, along Tianshui region's Xiaolong mountain, and Tangou in Wushan county, some one third of the forest was destroyed.
The destruction of forests not only reduced the amount of water resources, it caused sandstorms that wiped out tens of thousands of hectares of farming land, expanding the desert ever further.
The Great Leap Forward not only resulted in a devastating famine throughout China lasting three or more years and claiming tens of millions lives, it also led to the mass destruction of agriculture, industry and trade, and infiltrated every aspect of human life, leaving large parts of China scarred forever by man-made environmental disasters. The annual sandstorms and smog in Beijing is one example.
The problem will not be solved by simply banning private vehicles and street vendors, or closing down a few privately owned factories. The government needs to put serious efforts into stopping legal and illegal logging, gigantic irrigation projects and other constructions that destroy the remaining forests and damage the environment.
Beijing doesn't need any more huge ring roads and skyscrapers. What Beijing and other Chinese cities urgently need is a green belt. Putting more money into reforestation might be a more effective way to help tackle China's pollution problem and bring back the bright blue sky.
Xun Zhou is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Essex, Britain