ACCRA China is determined that its relations with Ghana will not be undermined by the arrest of some 200 Chinese illegal gold miners in a crackdown by Ghanaian authorities, a senior Beijing Foreign Ministry official said on Tuesday.
The arrests are a sensitive issue for China, which would want to defuse any issue that could stoke popular resentment against its citizens doing business in Africa or threaten its expanding trade relationship with the continent.
"This issue of illegal mining is a disharmony in the bilateral relations but we should always have the bigger picture in mind," said Xuejun Qiu, a director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.
He was speaking at a rare news conference that followed a week of meetings between a delegation he led and the government of President John Mahama to try to resolve the issue.
Ghanaian authorities this month rounded up 202 Chinese nationals who they said were working as illegal small gold producers. They have made sporadic arrests before, but these were the first mass raids.
The workers, mainly from Shang Lin County in Guangxi Zhang autonomous region in southern China, have been repatriated, the Chinese official said.
A senior Ghana government official said 218 Chinese citizens had been repatriated and would now be classed as "prohibited immigrants". It was not immediately clear why he gave a different figure.
Hundreds of other Chinese nationals might repatriate themselves voluntarily, the official said, but gave no further details.
Authorities in Accra say Chinese citizens were not specifically targeted, but the arrests have touched a nerve in Ghana because of fears Chinese people can exploit the economic imbalance between the two countries.
Ghana is one of Africa's brightest economic stars and the continent's second biggest gold miner, as well the world's number two cocoa producer. AngloGold Ashanti, which operates the flagship Obuasi mine, is the largest gold miner.
China's trade with Africa is dominated by the import of African raw materials to power China's economy, Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects and the export of Chinese products to African consumers.
Bilateral trade between Ghana and China stood at $5.43 billion dollars in 2012, up 56.5 percent over the previous year, according to Chinese ambassador Gong Jianzhong.
"The illegal activities conducted by some of the Chinese may harm the image of the Chinese in African countries," he said.
Tens of thousands of people in Ghana do illegal small-scale mining, a practice that is called "galamsey". The businesses sift tons of mud in river beds and forests to extract ore that is processed on site and sold to middlemen.
(Additional reporting by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Alison Williams)