Xu grew up in Fujian Province, the oldest of the eight children. After graduating from high school during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, he was sent to the countryside to work as a barefoot doctor. In the 1970s, he emigrated to Hong Kong and worked as a textile worker.
In 1988, he claimed to invest RMB$1.2 million in a knitting factory in his hometown, but he intended to build a hotel instead, although investments in private hotels were forbidden at that time. However, as soon as the construction was completed, the government policy was changed to allow private owners to have their hotels. Then Xu became the owner of the first private three-star hotel in China. He then started to invest into developing residential complexes and resorts in Fujian.
In the 1990s, he pushed his real estate business into Beijing and Shanghai just before housing prices rose up.
In the 2000s, he expanded his business by listed companies and changing their names. They are Shimao Holdings and Shimao International , while the latter was privatized by him in 2007. His third company, Shimao Property, was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2006.
On the 14 September 2008 it was rumoured he was interested in buying Newcastle United from under fire owner Mike Ashley.