Chinese companies are expected to invest $30 billion in the United States this year — and as president of the Detroit Chinese Business Association, Jerry Xu is determined to ensure that as many of those dollars as possible come to Michigan. The Wolverine State already has nearly 200 Chinese-owned firms contributing more than $3 billion a year in foreign direct investment. And the 3,000-member DCBA serves as a bridge between those Chinese businesses and the state, helping to forge and reinforce connections that bring both money and jobs to the region. “As an immigrant, I have the knowledge of the culture and language of both countries,” Xu explains. “That makes me uniquely valuable. I’m able to connect both sides.”
A lot of companies want them — it’s the brainpower that we’re hungry for — but without visas, we’re losing their talent and creativity.
Xu came to the United States in 1996, after completing a bachelor’s degree in Beijing, to study animal nutrition at Michigan State University. Within weeks of his arrival, he found himself wading through knee-deep snow at 4:30 AM to milk cows at the university’s research dairy farm and loving every moment. “I fell in love with the nature, the people, the lifestyle,” he says. That’s why, after graduation, Xu decided to try to find a job in the United States rather than return to China. He ended up completing an MBA, and had a successful career in sales and imports before joining the DCBA, eventually gaining a green card and citizenship. He calls his oath ceremony a profoundly important moment in his life. “I pledged allegiance to this country,” he says. “That means my life’s here, my home’s here, my family’s here. That’s my commitment to this country.”
Now, through his work with the DCBA, Xu organizes regular trade missions and meetings between U.S. and Chinese business leaders, helping to broker investments such as AVIC Automobile’s $465 million acquisition of Nexteer Automotive, a manufacturer of power steering and driveline systems, in 2010, a move that saved Nexteer from collapse and preserved 4,000 jobs in Detroit. The U.S. auto industry has been a major beneficiary of Chinese investments, Xu says; about 100 Chinese-owned auto parts companies now operate in metro Detroit. “We build connections between China and Detroit, so they see it as the best place to invest and work and expand their markets,” he says. And those connections go in both directions: China is now the number three destination for Michigan exports.
Still, Xu says, the United States could be doing more to benefit from Michigan’s relationship with China. For example, young, talented Chinese students are increasingly pursuing degrees at Michigan universities, often in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields — the very areas where U.S. businesses are desperate for qualified workers — but once these students graduate, they struggle to secure the employment visas that would allow them to stay and pitch in to the American economy. “They come here, spend a lot of money and get a lot of knowledge, but then the system doesn’t give them an opportunity to build a life and a career here,” he says. “A lot of companies want them — it’s the brainpower that we’re hungry for — but without visas, we’re losing their talent and creativity.”
Michigan’s political leaders, including Governor Rick Snyder, now recognize the value that immigrants bring to the state’s economy, Xu says. But it will take federal immigration reform to ensure that they have the opportunity to stay and contribute their skills as Xu did. “As immigrants, we know how much value we can bring,” Xu says. “The talent and energy of young immigrants can significantly help our economy to grow. I’d love to see those young, talented people given an easier path to build lives here and be part of our community.”