By BREE FENG and EDWARD WONG
Published: June 6, 2013
BEIJING— The authorities in the West African nation of Ghana have conducted sweeping arrests of Chinese citizens in the country’s gold mining regions, prompting Chinese officials to say Thursday that they had urged the Ghanaian government to carry out “civilized law enforcement” during the crackdown.
Michael Amoako-Atta, an immigration spokesman in Ghana, Africa’s second-largest gold producer, said Thursday that 169 Chinese citizens had been arrested since June 1 for working illegally and violating immigration rules, contending that they had entered the country through “unapproved routes” or overstayed visas to engage in illegal mining.
“It’s an ongoing operation,” Mr. Amoako-Atta said. It will continue “until we are clear that such kind of illegalities have ceased.”
The Chinese Embassy in Accra has confirmed that Chinese citizens were in detention and had not been seriously injured, according to a statement posted on the embassy’s Web site.
The arrests have become an intense topic of discussion among Chinese Internet users, with more than one million posts on the subject on a popular microblogging platform run by Sina, an Internet company. Although the Chinese government has yet to confirm any casualties in the arrests, unverified photos circulating online purport to show Chinese people in Ghana with severe injuries. Whether those photos are accurate or not, they have stoked anger in China.
“The Chinese Embassy in Ghana has already dispatched personnel to mine sites to further verify relevant circumstances,” Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Thursday at a regularly scheduled news conference in Beijing.
He also said that the Chinese government had requested the Ghanaian side to “stop local residents from looting.”
Some of the world’s largest mining companies have invested in Ghana, including the Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation. However, illegal small-scale mining has been a persistent issue for the country and the Chinese workers there. Many mine workers are from Guangxi Province, in southern China, and they operate small-scale gold mines, often without proper licenses. Because no foreigner can get a license for small-scale mining in Ghana, Chinese miners often work with Ghanaian partners, who secure the land and licenses needed to do the mining in exchange for a cut of the minerals.
The local authorities in Shanglin in Guangxi, the area many of the miners call home, issued a statement on Thursday urging residents not to go to Ghana for gold mining. It also said that it would offer miners from Shanglin plane tickets to return home.
Chinese companies, many of them state-owned enterprises, are spread throughout Africa. They are often welcomed by local governments as business partners with deep pockets, but also despised by many local residents for, among other reasons, bringing in Chinese laborers rather than employing Africans in large numbers.
China, for example, is facing problems in Gabon, another resource-rich African country. Gabon’s oil minister, Etienne Ngoubou, told The Financial Times on Wednesday that the government would reclaim assets belonging to China’s Addax Petroleum, a subsidiary of one of China’s largest energy companies, Sinopec, because the company had breached a contract. An official for Addax said that it had no intention of leaving the country and had filed legal action.
In Ghana, the government had conducted crackdowns earlier on Chinese workers. A similar operation last year resulted in the death of a 16-year old Chinese citizen.
“It’s true that many Chinese in Ghana are doing illegal mining,” said Cui Shoujun, research director of the Center for International Strategy Studies at Renmin University of China. Many of them entered the country illegally, for example using tourist visas, and get around industry restrictions by collaborating with local citizens, Mr. Cui said.
China has become Ghana’s largest trading partner, Mr. Cui said. But the Ghanaian government reserves small-scale mining for Ghanaian citizens in order to promote the economy.
Chinese state-owned companies have been criticized in the past for ignoring the social and environmental impacts of their projects when investing in resource-rich African countries. However, the Chinese government has rejected criticisms that it is behaving like a colonial power, pointing out that China has donated infrastructure to the countries it invested in, as well as providing other benefits like scholarships for African students.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, who is in the United States this week to meet with President Obama, announced during a state visit to Tanzania in March that “China will intensify, not weaken, its efforts to expand relations with Africa.”
The arrests in Ghana are indicative of the increasing popular pressure the Chinese government faces to protect its citizens as more of them venture abroad.
While some in Ghana welcome Chinese investment as a way to improve the local economy, Mr. Cui said, others might resent the Chinese for “getting the gold that they cannot, perhaps because of better technology.”
As Mr. Cui left the country at the end of a recent trip, he said, he noticed that the “immigration officials could all speak Chinese.”
Chris Stein contributed reporting from Accra, Ghana.