Special report: China’s image crisis in Ghana

As Chinese investment in mineral-rich Ghana soars, negative attitudes towards Chinese workers are also common. Cui Shoujun spent three months in the African state investigating

Shouts of “Hello, Chinaman” sound friendly, but language barriers mean most Chinese workers reply only with silence or a smile. In fact the greeting might not be all that cordial – it is often a label, rather than a welcome. 

Long-term Chinese residents of Ghana fall into four categories: traders and businesspeople, who tend to be well-off; professionals such as technicians, engineers, aid workers, teachers and healthcare workers, who tend to be well educated; workers contracted to private or state-owned Chinese firms, the largest group; and those who have settled in Ghana – the true Chinese “immigrants”.

In a speech given in 2009, the Chinese ambassador to Ghana estimated there were about 10,000 Chinese nationals in the country. The figure is likely to have grown rapidly since then.

China started to build links with West Africa in the 1950s, both for ideological reasons and to work with the Third World against the Soviet Union. Situated on the north coast of the Gulf of Guinea, Ghana has rich mineral resources – as a British colony it was called the Gold Coast, due to its deposits of the precious metal.

In 1957 it became the first sub-Saharan colony to win independence, and the country now enjoys stable economic growth, a two-party political system, and an independent media.

China and Ghana established diplomatic relations in 1960, and China is now Ghana’s biggest trading partner: in 2011 bilateral trade was worth US$3.5 billion, and Chinese investment continues to grow fast. But there is a trade imbalance: Ghana’s exports to China were worth only US$400 million the same year.

Negative images of China
Chinese people in Ghana are largely unaware or uninterested that the locals have a negative image of them. The Ghanaians are a gentle people and rarely express unfriendly views, while the Chinese are unable to read the local newspapers, leaving them uninformed. The Chinese often stick to their own areas and do not genuinely integrate into local culture. 

So there is a gap – one that’s hard to bridge – between the Chinese “self-image” and the “other-image” of the Chinese in Ghanaian society and media. Those negative images held by society and the media can be categorised as follows:

First are negative attitudes towards Chinese investment. In fact, views here are sharply divided. Ghanaian academics and government mostly welcome Chinese investment, believing it drives economic growth on the continent. Officials quote Sierra Leone’s ambassador to China, who once said “If a G8 nation had wanted to rebuild our stadium, we’d still be holding meetings. The Chinese simply come and build it for us.” A survey of Ghanaian students also found that a large majority approve of the role of Chinese investment.

But opponents point to negative factors such as political motivations, poor working conditions and a lack of respect for human rights, and this view is often expressed in the media. China is represented as not playing by the rules of the game and damaging Ghana’s economic interests.

Some Ghanaian officials have also expressed scepticism about the motives. The former Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, for example, once said that “Chinese capital is as ruthless as Wall Street’s – it’s here to make money.”

Second are views on the status of Chinese workers. To my surprise, many of my friends in Ghanaian government have asked me if the workers China sends to Ghana are convicts. In surveys of randomly selected locals, I found that many believe that China brings in convict labour to work on infrastructure projects, as the workers wear dirty clothes and work hard for long hours.

Chinese workers were shocked and angry when I asked them about this. One construction worker from Anhui told me he had come to Ghana because he wanted to save some money for tuition fees for a child soon to attend university. The Ghanaian Minister of Education has denied that China uses convict labour in Ghana on television, but the idea is still widespread.

Another issue is the view that Chinese workers are lecherous. Ghana’s newspapers and websites often report rumours of male Chinese workers fathering children with African women, or of cases of sexual harassment by Chinese workers. This is a very sensitive issue. Local media once ran a story about a Ghanaian women becoming pregnant after allegedly being raped by a Chinese colleague. The Chinese firm’s management team was furious, and the woman visited the site with her parents to identify the culprit, but was unable to do so. The government later said that, as there had been no public accusation, there was no case of harassment to answer.

Although there may be extreme cases, I found that the majority of Chinese workers remained celibate in Ghana, both out of a sense of responsibility, and because they say they are not attracted to African women. This actually led to another rumour, that Chinese workers had “sex inoculations” before travelling to Africa, to stop any sexual desires.

Product quality and rising crime

Fourth are concerns about Chinese product quality. Chinese-made goods are common in Ghana, from toothbrushes and shoes to motorbikes and Chinese medicine (such as sweet wormwood, used to treat malaria). Chinese shops are springing up everywhere, mostly owned or run by the Chinese themselves. But some complain that Chinese goods are of poor quality. The media claims that China sends the best quality goods to the EU and US, while sub-standard or even fake goods are exported to Africa.

Actually, China sends both high and low quality goods to the continent: the better goods are found in large supermarkets and department stores, the poorer quality products in outlying regions or villages.

The media once reported that over 400 Chinese-made buses, given to local urban transportation firms as part of an aid project, could not be used due to quality problems. But a Dutch engineer investigated and found that the buses met quality standards. The problem was the consumable parts had not been replaced, due to inexperienced mechanics and the lack of an English manual, as well as the weather in Ghana being hotter than the buses were designed for.

The Ghana News Agency later confirmed that the use of water in coolant tanks, rather than actual coolant, had caused rusting, overheating and blockages. Chinese products are cheap and provide more options for African consumers, and this helps improve their quality of life.

There are also increasing numbers of reports of Chinese people committing crimes in Africa, including in human trafficking, the sex industry and illegal mining and fishing. But as Africans often do not distinguish between Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Japanese, crimes by any of these nationalities can get blamed on the Chinese.

Ghanaian gossip makes it clear that the Chinese have an image crisis.