Tensions grow as China ramps up global mining for green tech

Earlier this year, Ai Qing was woken up in the middle of the night by angry chants outside her dormitory in northern Argentina.

She peered out of the window to see Argentine workers surrounding the compound and blockading the entrance with flaming tyres.

“It was getting scary because I could see the sky being lit up by the fire. It had become a riot,” says Ms Ai, who works for a Chinese company extracting lithium from salt flats in the Andes mountains, for use in batteries.

The protest, sparked by the firing of a number of Argentine staff, is just one of a growing number of cases of friction between Chinese businesses and host communities, as China – which already dominates the processing of minerals vital to the green economy – expands its involvement in mining them.

It was just 10 years ago that a Chinese company bought the country’s first stake in an extraction project within the “lithium triangle” of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which holds most of the world’s lithium reserves.

Many further Chinese investments in local mining operations have followed, according to mining publications, and corporate, government and media reports. The BBC calculates that based on their shareholdings, Chinese companies now control an estimated 33% of the lithium at projects currently producing the mineral or those under construction.

Getty Images Aerial view of SQM (Sociedad Quimica Minera) brine ponds in the Atacama Desert, Chile, on September 12, 2022.Getty Images
Latin America’s “lithium triangle” has larger quantities of the mineral than anywhere else in the world
But as Chinese businesses have expanded, they have faced allegations of abuses similar to those often levelled at other international mining giants.

For Ai Qing, the tyre-burning protest was a rude awakening. She had expected a quiet life in Argentina, but found herself involved in conflict mediation because of her knowledge of Spanish.

“It wasn’t easy,” she says.

“Beyond the language, we have to tone down many things, like how management thinks the employees are simply lazy and too reliant on the union, and how locals think Chinese people are only here to exploit them.”

The BBC Global China Unit has identified at least 62 mining projects across the world, in which Chinese companies have a stake, that are designed to extract either lithium or one of three other minerals key to green technologies – cobalt, nickel and manganese.

All are used to make lithium-ion batteries – used in electric vehicles – which, along with solar panels, are now high industrial priorities for China. Some projects are among the largest producers of these minerals in the world.


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