By using surface samples collected in areas under high desertification risk in semiarid China, the roles of aeolian transport and the surface characteristics on sandy desertification were analysed. The results show that vegetation cover may not play the key role in the aeolian processes. However, the content of silt and clay decrease the aeolian transport rates even when the surfaces are moderately crushed. The low moisture content of the surface soils (<1%) did not play an important role in the aeolian transport rate. The intensity of aeolian transport was mainly determined by the availability of the erodible material. Considering that human activities may not result in the surfaces being completely crushed, moderate human activities may not trigger severe desertification. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.