Could the biggest threat to China’s image be its own citizens when they work and travel abroad? It’s a question that’s been the subject of a noisy public debate in recent days as the country learned that more than 160 Chinese miners in Ghana had been arrested -- and were soon to be deported -- for a range of illegal and destructive activities.

The accounts were greeted with shock, anger and an unusual degree of introspection, in large part because China has spent the last decade reaching out to Africa, hoping that economic assistance and diplomatic cooperation can result in friendship. News that stories of renegade Chinese miners were prominent in Ghana over the last several weeks was thus not only unwelcome but also a rude reminder of how China’s aspirations for international respectability can be undone by its citizens’ behavior.

The nationalist, Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper, rarely an oracle of self-examination, made such a point in a June 7 editorial: “This incident alerts us once again that China has risen and achieved national power, but it is far from solid. In order to make a living there are many Chinese who would still like to take the risks that the elder generations have taken, and illegally enter countries, illegally obtain employment and do illegal businesses. They’re not able to connect their personal struggle to China’s rise.”

The Chinese Mining Association in Ghana estimates that more than 50,000 Chinese gold miners have moved to Ghana since 2005, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimating there are currently between 20,000 and 30,000 Chinese mining there. Roughly 12,000 miners came from poor Shanglin county since 2006, according to the state-owned Xinhua newswire. (The mining association estimates that as many as two thirds of all miners since 2005 came from the county.) In any case, it’s not clear why so many people from that region chose Ghana, but once they found it, they succeeded. According to a widely circulated May 15 report in China 21st Century Business Herald, Shanglin miners wired more than $150 million home in May and June 2011.

It would be a happy story but for a few problems. First, according to media reports, many of the Chinese miners are in Ghana on tourist visas (with entry sometimes facilitated by corrupt immigration officers). Second, Ghanaian law restricts licenses for “small scale mining” of the sort favored by Chinese prospectors only to Ghanaians. Many Chinese miners manage to rent licenses, or enter into partnerships, thereby circumventing the law while inciting intense local resentment. It doesn’t help that the Chinese miners use techniques that are efficient but low-tech and damaging to the environment and farmland. Personal conduct, meanwhile, is also an issue, with reports of widespread prostitution in Chinese miner camps.

On Chinese social media, neither the allegations nor the resulting crackdown was that surprising. In contemporary China, rare is the financially successful businessperson (or politician) who isn’t subject to whispers about what backroom deal made his or her fortune possible. This phenomenon has only been intensified by China’s ongoing corruption crackdowns and the many media stories about crooked politicians and their fortunes.

Zhang Tianwei, a well-known television commentator and columnist at the Communist Party-owned Beijing Youth Daily, used his account on Sina Weibo, the country’s leading social-media platform, to connect stereotypes about Chinese corruption to the Shanglin miners in a June 9 tweet: “We can absolutely imagine what these Shanglinese have done in Ghana, and the image that the locals now have of them: smart, cunning and unruly with a tendency to exploit loopholes. In places with laws, they exploit the legal loopholes; in places without laws, they are just like ducks to water. The local people aren’t able to compete with them in business and finally get outraged and drive them out.”

Even the most nationalistic papers -- including the hard-line Global Times -- have avoided outright defenses of the miners, much less calls for the government to intervene beyond diplomacy. The foreign ministry reacted to the detention of 124 Chinese miners by lodging “representations” -- a Chinese diplomatic euphemism for a stern letter -- to the Ghanaian government and, after negotiating with the authorities, arranging for miners to be transported back to China.

Unfortunately, representations and diplomacy, especially when Chinese citizens or territory are at stake, often irritate the country’s microbloggers more than placate them. Some microbloggers were reminded of China’s careful approach to its dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (known to the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands) and its humiliations at the hands of colonial powers during the 19th and 20th centuries.

A characteristic version of this line of thinking was tweeted June 8 by an anonymous Sina Weibo user in Suzhou: “Our compatriots mining for gold are bullied in Ghana, and the government, without any sympathy, doesn’t protect them and declares that their behavior is illegal. You say that the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands will be left to future generations to solve. What can you do as the world’s second biggest economic entity? During the Qing Dynasty, China was the biggest economic entity but still got bullied! Without some ideas and guts, will these weak countries really respect you?”

Some of the country’s most influential news media -- both independent and Communist Party-directed -- have run editorials that push back against such patriotic, microblogged fervor with reminders that Chinese abroad are obligated to respect local customs and laws. Though often unstated, Chinese readers will recognize these warnings as related to the national discussion over the occasionally poor behavior of Chinese tourists at home and abroad (a concern recently voiced by one of China’s deputy prime ministers).

Chen Bing, writing for the independently minded, Communist Party-supervised Beijing News, made this comparison in a June 7 commentary: “Another point we should consider in this ’tragedy’ is whether we are reasonable and our behaviors fit international norms. Many Chinese who go to Ghana to mine gold enter the country using tourist visas and don’t have permission to work there. Since they are behaving in an illegal manner, and the locals are merely carrying out their laws, to some degree there is no ground for blame. So whether people go to Europe, America, Africa or Latin America, they should have the sense to obey their laws.”

This week, the detained miners (more than 40 additional Chinese were arrested after the initial 124 that set off the furor) will begin an involuntary journey back to China, with the assistance of their government. For the immediate future, they’re the public face of China’s engagement with developing Africa. That doesn’t need to remain the case, however: The many thousands of Chinese miners they leave behind in Ghana are more than capable, if not willing, to change their ways. For the sake of China’s shaky global image, their government and compatriots can only hope they will.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.