President Donald Trump garnered support from many American workers by ratcheting up fear about China sucking up U.S. jobs and hurting the country’s economy.
That was true in the 1980s and 1990s in South Carolina, when the state’s textile jobs fled to China’s low cost labor pool. But today, China is bringing jobs back to the Palmetto State in a big way.
The world’s most populous country is the third-ranking foreign-based jobs provider in South Carolina, behind Germany and Sweden. It provides 3,500 jobs at 33 factories statewide, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce.
Three Chinese companies have recently said or are expected to announce they are heading to the Midlands: tire maker Wanli in Orangeburg and fiberglass firms Jushi and Hengshi in Richland County. Combined, they are expected to create more than 2,000 jobs.
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“It’s not just the Midlands; they are investing all over,” said Jeff Ruble, Richland County economic development director. “The president’s rhetoric about trade has caught the attention of these overseas companies.”
In addition to Trump’s tough talk, Chinese firms are investing here for the same reasons other foreign companies do: They avoid import taxes on goods produced here and enjoy the state’s low taxes, affordable wages, a friendly business climate and a world class port in Charleston.
“They can produce in South Carolina at the right cost,” said Wally Wang, a China native and University of South Carolina graduate who serves as the S.C. Commerce Department’s senior project manager for recruiting Chinese firms.
Drew Walker, president of the new Jushi plant in Richland County, said Chinese firms also tend to locate in areas where other Chinese firms have been successful.
“They like to cluster,” he said, noting that the Hengshi plant, which will locate in the same industrial park as Jushi, will use fiberglass from Jushi to weave its materials.
As for the Chinese investment spike?
“It’s a government initiative to go global,” Walker said. “The cost of manufacturing is rising in China ... Chinese companies are leading the way in the technologies they make. It’s a simple economic goal: Growth.”
Nearly two decades ago, South Carolina was the first state to recruit a Chinese factory, and the state still aggressively does that, Wang said.
In 1999, Haier located a $40 million refrigerator plant in Kershaw County. Among the team that landed the deal was Ruble, then-Kershaw County economic development director Nelson Lindsay and an independent recruiter named John Ling. Ling would go on to become Wang’s predecessor at Commerce and a facilitator of the growth of Chinese recruiting in South Carolina.
Chinese companies are a challenge, Ruble said, because of cultural differences, language barriers and a different world view of the role of government in business, Ruble said.
“It’s hard work recruiting Chinese companies,” he said.
But Haier showed that Chinese companies can be successful here. In 2015, the company announced a $72-million expansion that added 410 jobs.
Today, South Carolina is 5th among the 50 states for greenfield investments from China, according to Site Development magazine, referring to factories built from the ground up.
And the Midlands is taking advantage of those opportunities.
▪ Jushi is building a $300 million plant in Richland County’s new Pineview Industrial Park. The fiberglass manufacturing facility is expected to create 400 jobs.
A second phase of the project would include an identical plant adding another 400 jobs, making it the biggest economic development announcement in the county since Union Camp in the 1980s.
▪ Hengshi also plans to locate at the Pineview Industrial Park. The company is expected to invest $11.1 million in a 111,000-square-foot facility that will create 48 jobs.
Hengshi specializes in the research, development, production and marketing of a variety of fiber-weaving products for export around the world. Primarily used in wind turbine blades, the company’s products are also utilized in space flight, aviation, construction, transportation, environmental protection and more.
▪ And although it has not been officially announced, Wanli plans to open a manufacturing plant in Orangeburg County that will eventually employ 1,200 workers. It plans to invest $1 billion over eight years at an unidentified location, company officials said in a statement.
Midlands Chinese firms
$40 million initial investment, $72 million expansion
$300 million investment (phase one)
Produces fiberglass fabric
$11.1 million investment
Wanli Tire Corp.
Yet to be announced
$1 billion investment