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SHANGLIN, GUANGXI PROVINCE — When Wen Haijian left home on May 20 last year to dig gold in Ghana, he promised to bring back a fortune. Those hopes were shattered when an urn with his ashes returned last month.
“A gang of armed robbers came to his mine on April 16,” says his wife, sobbing in front of two framed pictures of Wen, a serious-looking, tall man with a square mustachioed face. “When he got up at night to check on the machinery, they shot him right in the head.”
In Shanglin, a poor county in the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi with a population of 470,000 people, most of the inhabitants are old people, women or children because so many men have gone to Ghana. The county government estimates that 12,000 people from Shanglin are still in the west African country.
In Shuitai, Wen’s remote home village where almost everyone shares his surname, 100 of the 900 inhabitants are in Ghana. “On average, they go for three years,” says Wen Ruchun, a woman whose husband is in Ghana as well. “The first year, you build up the mine and earn your investment back, the second year you start making some money, and the third year you come home.”
That calculation has been shattered as the rapid expansion of Chinese-run small-scale mines has triggered conflict with residents and a fresh crackdown on illegal gold mining.
On Sunday, Chinese officials said that Ghana would release the 169 Chinese citizens detained last week and would grant safe passage to others who agree to leave. In Shanglin, people expect many others to return in the next few weeks.
An anonymous account by someone claiming to be a Chinese miner in Ghana circulated on Chinese websites accuses Chinese miners of mistreating their Ghanaian workers and molesting women. Although miners reject such allegations, Chinese officials say the rapid expansion has fuelled conflict in Ghana.
“The situation is very severe,” said the county government in a public announcement put up in the streets of Shanglin.
“Especially since April, incidents of murder among people from Shanglin in Ghana and the shooting dead of local residents have created serious safety problems and dissatisfaction among the local population.” Late last year a 16-year-old Chinese boy was killed by Ghanaian security forces.
In Shuitai, old men and women with small children gather under a large old banyan tree to exchange the latest news from Ghana and share their worries.
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