More than 100 “masked attackers” destroyed a government office and security patrol base in China’s Inner Mongolia region on Sunday morning, injuring 13 and causing extensive damage to state property.

The attackers fell upon the Ejin Banner office complex, located at the border with neighbouring Gansu province, at about 3:00am.

According to a government statement, the mob pepper-sprayed staff members and herders who were helping guard the premises. Victims were hooded, beaten with clubs and left outside in -20 Celsius temperatures while bulldozers were used to bring down the buildings. Six men were reportedly taken to hospital for treatment.

Damage at government office. Photo: Sina.

In recent years, Inner Mongolia has became the site of sporadic protests by ethnic Mongol herders displeased with the way mining and desertification have destroyed traditional grazing grounds.

Chinese news sources, however, have framed Sunday’s incident as a local land dispute rather than an anti-government action.

Location of Ejin Banner (red) within China. Photo: Google Maps.

In 1969 the Ejin Banner became part of western Gansu province, but it changed hands again ten years later, returning to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The security checkpoint was established in order to “maintain border stability” between the two provincial units.

According to checkpoint security officers cited by China’a Sina News, people from Gansu wanted to expand their cultivated land and build small farms on the Inner Mongolia side of the border. Their main duties at the government checkpoint, the man said, were to patrol the area and prevent squatters from taking over more farmland.

Over-grazing, logging, expanding farms and population pressure—coupled with increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation—have turned vast areas of once-fertile grasslands in western China into sandy plains. China is one of the countries most severely impacted by desertification, which encompasses over 30 percent of the country’s total land territory and adversely affects 400 million people.

According to Chinese criminal law, attacking a government office carries a sentence of between five to ten years’ imprisonment.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others