I was thinking about the same when I read that and checked what they could have planted instead.
Bougainvillea would have been a good idea if the soil is still good, they need barely anything after that and are very resistant to dry climates. And their flowers look amazing.
Pistacia Chinensis would probably be the top choice of Chinese officials. For once, it's a local plant, very resistant to both cold and heat, can thrive in very dry conditions and it's nuts are used to produce biodiesel. If they went by those then I think they can handle the weather conditions there.
Ginkgo trees would be another Chinese Plant that doesn't need much water and could grow well there. However, they need a pollinator to reproduce, and in that arid climate, there simply may not be one to do the job.
You know your trees, some great suggestions there :)
Worked for 2 years in a work programme for long-term unemployed people for some local government, mostly as a gardener, and learned quite a lot there about that stuff. Just had to google for the right writing and possible alternatives...