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Business

Suddenly, Chinese offering jobs in US

Governor Robert Bentley toured a plant being built by Golden Dragon with company president Roger Zhang. It’s the first company Bentley recruited after taking office.

Jamie Martin/Associated Press

Governor Robert Bentley toured a plant being built by Golden Dragon with company president Roger Zhang. It’s the first company Bentley recruited after taking office.

PINE HILL, Ala. — Burdened with Alabama’s highest unemployment rate, long abandoned by textile mills and furniture plants, Wilcox County desperately needs jobs.

They’re coming, and from a most unlikely place: Henan Province, China.

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Henan’s Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group opened a plant here last month. It will employ more than 300.

‘‘Jobs that pay $15 an hour are few and far between,’’ says Dottie Gaston, an official in nearby Thomasville.

What’s happening in Pine Hill is starting to happen across America.

After decades of siphoning jobs from the United States, China is creating some. Chinese companies invested a record $14 billion in the United States last year, according to Rhodium Group, a research firm. Collectively, they employ more than 70,000 Americans, up from virtually none a decade ago.

Powerful forces — narrowing wage gaps, tumbling US energy prices, the vagaries of currency markets — are pulling Chinese companies across the Pacific. Mayors and economic development officials have lined up to welcome Chinese investors. Southern states, touting low labor and land costs, have been aggressive.

In Pine Hill, tax breaks, Southern hospitality, and a tray of homemade banana pudding helped, too.

‘‘Get off the plane and the mayor is waiting for you,’’ says Hong Kong billionaire Ronnie Chan.

In March, Dothan, Ala., held a two-day US-China manufacturing symposium, drawing dozens of potential Chinese investors. On sale were T-shirts reading: ‘‘Ni hao, y’all’’ — combining the Chinese version of ‘‘hello’’ with a colloquial Southernism.

A Chinese company, in a deal negotiated before the symposium, announced it would bring a 3-D printing operation to Dothan.

Among other Chinese projects in the United States:

 In Moraine, Ohio, glassmaker Fuyao Glass Industry Group is taking over a plant that General Motors abandoned in 2008 and creating at least 800 jobs.

 In Lancaster County, S.C., Chinese textile manufacturer Keer Group is investing $218 million in a plant to make industrial yarn and will employ 500. South Carolina nudged the deal along with a $4 million grant.

 In Gregory, Texas, Tianjin Pipe is investing over $1 billion in a factory that makes pipes for oil and gas drillers. It will have 50 to 70 employees by the end of this year and 400 to 500 by the end of 2017.

The United States and China have long had a lopsided relationship: China makes things; America buys them. The US trade deficit in goods with China last year hit a record $318 billion.

And for three decades, numerous US manufacturers have moved operations to China.

The flow is at least starting to move the other way. One reason is that in the past decade, the cost of labor, adjusted for productivity gains, has surged 187 percent at Chinese factories, compared with just 27 percent in the United States, according to Boston Consulting Group.

In addition, Chinese electricity costs rose 66 percent, more than twice the United States’ increase.

And the value of China’s currency has risen more than 30 percent against the US dollar over the past decade. The higher yuan has raised the cost of Chinese goods sold abroad and, conversely, made US goods more affordable in China.

Those rising costs have cut China’s competitive edge. In 2004, manufacturing cost 14 percent less in China than in the United States; that advantage has narrowed to 5 percent. If the trend toward higher wages, energy costs, and a higher currency continues, Boston Consulting predicts, US manufacturing will be less expensive than China’s by 2018.

Cost isn’t the only allure. As Chinese companies build more sophisticated products, they want to work more directly with US customers.

‘‘Being close to the marketplace is good for everybody,’’ says Loretta Lee, a Hong Kong entrepreneur who opened a shoe factory in Tennessee.

Wilcox County — with 15.5 percent unemployment, Alabama’s highest — qualified for extra aid. It landed $8 million in state and federal grants to help build an annex road and sewage lines for the Chinese project.

The county also gave the company 100 acres of a 274-acre industrial park it bought for $1.2 million and a break on property taxes. Alabama offered to reimburse the company up to $20 million of its costs for building the $100 million factory. It will get the full amount if it ends up hiring 500 people.

Still, culture and language can remain a barrier. Local officials hastily replaced a black-and-white banner welcoming Golden Dragon after learning that the colors signified a funeral to the Chinese.

‘‘Nobody wants a faux pas,’’ says John Clyde Riggs, executive director of a regional planning commission.

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