China must stem tide of migrants who flout the law in Africa

Gary Sands says Beijing should regulate the migrant flow to protect the country's interests

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 4:01am

The arrest and eventual repatriation of some 200 Chinese nationals working as illegal gold miners in Ghana has led many people to again question the benefits of China's involvement on the African continent. Many of the illegal gold miners come from Guangxi's Shanglin county. Some estimates say as many as 12,000 people from there may have engaged in gold mining in Ghana since 2006.

While Chinese investment in Africa is often associated with the efforts of large state-owned companies which tap the continent's natural resources, the plight of thousands of ordinary Chinese who have travelled to Africa in search of better opportunities is often overlooked. Many may ignore local laws.

In Ghana, permits are required to operate small-scale mines, and are only issued to Ghanaian nationals. When Chinese nationals started mining without licences, using excavators, local miners who mostly use pickaxes were furious. Local farming communities are also angry, believing their land and drinking water are under threat.

For the time being, though, these tensions should not undermine African interest in Chinese investment. African governments prefer China's deep pockets and no-strings-attached aid policy to the cumbersome conditions of Western nations. Chinese investment is also welcomed by ordinary Africans.

Though investment from China has for many years been criticised for representing economic colonialism, exporting pollution, using foreign workers instead of local labour, and displacing small manufacturers, Western governments have been just as guilty in the past.

The differences this time around are the apparent lack of interest in redrawing territorial boundaries and the potential numbers of immigrants. No other nation (save India) has the potential to populate the continent with large numbers of its nationals. Recent estimates put the number of Chinese working or living on the continent at over a million. To date, scant attention has been paid to these hordes of illegal economic refugees.

Chinese investment has been welcome as long as it adheres to the regulatory framework, creates jobs, helps build infrastructure and brings money to the local economy. But the flood of illegal Chinese who flout local laws threatens to undermine the efforts of hard-working Africans, the reputation of the state-owned corporations, and those Chinese companies and employees seeking a foothold in the continent.

In Africa, China needs to regulate the influx of immigrants flocking to the continent to present its best face - or it stands to quickly lose it.

Gary Sands has run his own private equity financial advisory in Shanghai since 2006