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, 7,600 miles away.
Henan's Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group opened a plant here last month. It will employ more than 300 in a county known less for job opportunities than for lakes filled with bass, pine forests rich with wild turkey and boar and muddy roads best negotiated in four-wheel-drive trucks.
"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 the Rhodium Group research firm. Collectively, they employ more than 70,000 Americans, up from virtually none a decade ago.
Powerful forces — narrowing wage gaps, tumbling U.S. 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 especially aggressive.
In the case of the Pine Hill plant, tax breaks, some 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, Alabama, held a two-day U.S.-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.
Chinese executives wandered around during a street festival, experiencing Americana by snapping photos of vintage '60s muscle cars. A Chinese company, in a deal negotiated before the symposium, announced it would bring a 3D printing operation to Dothan.