Africa or Bust: Chinese Gold Miners Take Huge Risks

Hundreds of gold miners from southern China face destitution after they were deported from Ghana for illegal prospecting

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Chris Stein / AFP / Getty Images

A small-scale site in Dunkwa-on-Offin in the center of Ghana once mined by Chinese prospectors is pictured on June 15, 2013

High in the wooded mountains of rural Shanglin county in China’s southern Guangxi province, Yang Jun dreams of Africa, specifically the gold hidden over 11,000 km away beneath Ghana’s blood red soil. Squatting by the side of the dusty road leading into his home village of Sibiao, where almost everyone shares his surname and obsession with the gleaming metal, the wiry 40-year-old mourns the precious veins left untapped when he was expelled from the West African nation in early June — and the borrowed cash he poured into the mine he will likely never see again. “I just needed one more month, one more month and I would’ve made my money back,” he says, thinking of the $163,000 he borrowed from local banks to buy mining equipment. “Just one more month.”

A month was too long for Ghanaian President John Mahama, who on May 14 ordered a crackdown on what his administration deems illegal Chinese prospecting. Ghana has been inundated with migrant gold miners in recent years and the vast majority — an estimated 50,000 — are Chinese from Shanglin county. The Chinese miners claim they were operating in legal partnership with local Ghanaian landowners (although many admit to not having valid documentation). Hundreds of miners, including Yang, were rounded up and deported a couple of weeks ago. Most have since slowly made their way back to the mountain villages in one of China’s poorest regions where most people belong to the Zhuang ethnic minority.

(Click here to read TIME’s cover story on how China sees the world.)

In Sibiao, Yang reckons that practically every family had one or two men working in Ghana, and that many of them have been similarly indebted by the crackdown. But they are also used to the boom-and-bust cycle of prospecting, for gold has been a way of life there for generations. Decades ago, the men of Yang’s grandfather’s generation discovered panning for gold in the sandy streams running off nearby Daming Mountain. Before long, the villagers of Shanglin county had become self-taught experts in alluvial gold mining, a rare skill in China. With their techniques perfected, the locals extracted all they could from the mountain. When these supplies diminished in the early 2000s, they took their skills to the freezing rivers of Heilongjiang province, where China meets Siberia. An entrepreneurial few, however, headed for Africa and rumors of Ghanaian sands thick with gold.

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The current gloom is a far cry from jubilant celebrations in 2008, when the first Shanglin men returned from Ghana, a few as dollar millionaires. Some clubbed together to build a Chinese-style decorative arch marking the entrance to the village. Dubbed the Golden Gate, people flocked from miles around to have their pictures taken. “It was supposed to bring good luck to our mining,” Yang says, gesturing toward the monument, now strewn with ragged bunting left over from a long-forgotten homecoming celebration. “Nobody comes here for pictures now.”

While the Golden Gate may have lost some of its luster, there are many locals who can testify to the good fortune it once represented. The drab redbrick homes common to the Chinese countryside give way to more modern architecture. Brightly tiled, well-kept residences in Sibiao sport new aluminum windows and sturdy metal doors, demonstrating the relative affluence of this village.

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Yang Da eases his sleek black sedan out through the large red gates of one such house. “I just bought this car with the money I made in Ghana,” the 29-year-old chatters excitedly, a broad smile permanently etched across his face. A few years ago he was making $163 to $330 a month in a battery factory. In Ghana he made 10 times more. “Where else could a guy like me make that kind of money?” he says. Not that it came easy. Chinese miners in Ghana needed to produce at least 100 g of gold a day just to break even. And with a reputation for hoarding gold and cash, and little legal protection, they were easy pickings for local thugs. “They knew we buried our valuables in the ground, so they’d even dig up the floors of our sheds,” says Yang Jun, who claims to have lost between $326,000 and $490,000 in a series of robberies. “Between the eight of us on my team we had three guns — we kept them close at all times even when we ate our meals.”

Little Yang, a 26-year-old Sibiao native, points to an inch-long scar on his cheek received during a robbery. “We were helpless,” he recalls, explaining that the local police had to be to bribed to investigate. “And if we called the Chinese embassy, once they found out we were from Shanglin they ignored us because they knew most of us were there on tourist visas and didn’t have proper working documents.” Little Yang was making $2,000 a month in Ghana, six times what he would typically earn as a driver back home, but he returned to Shanglin after less than a year in Africa. “In the few months I was there I heard of 20 fellow Chinese who died from illness or from violence,” Little Yang recalls. The Chinese Mining Association in Ghana reportedly received at least 50 urgent calls for emergency assistance every day from Chinese nationals, and there was also a spate of brutal murders.

Yang Jun, though, cannot let go so easily. His wife and mother eke a subsistence living from the family’s tiny plot of land, and he has no hope of paying back the banks or putting his two sons through the local high school if he stays in Sibiao. “I’m heading for Zimbabwe in a few weeks, I’ve got friends there who will help me get set up,” he says, outlining his plans to invest $16,000 in his latest venture. It’s a relatively small amount compared with his project in Ghana, but still a fortune for most people in this rough-and-tumble rural community. “I have to pay my debts,” he says, “and apart from gold mining, I don’t know what else to do.”

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