Charles Fos­ter: knot to China

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­

When it comes to China-US re­la­tions, Charles Fos­ter, co-chair­man at the Hous­ton, Texas, law firm Fos­ter Quan, LLP, has been a wit­ness and an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in some of the sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal events in­volv­ing the two coun­tries.

Fos­ter’s in­volve­ment with China is closely tied to his per­sonal con­nec­tions. He is a friend of for­mer US Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush, who has been an im­por­tant fig­ure in USChina re­la­tions, and he is mar­ried to Chi­nese ac­tress Chen Ye, who now goes by the name Lily Chen Fos­ter.

As chair­man of the Asia So­ci­etyTexas Cen­ter for more than 20 years, Fos­ter has presided over many China-re­lated pro­grams and served as host to US am­bas­sadors to China and Chi­nese am­bas­sadors to the US. Through his work, he has got know many states­men in coun­tries and be­come close friends with some of them, in­clud­ing for­mer Chi­nese Am­bas­sador Yang Jiechi.

From his 20th-floor down­town of­fice on a cold and rainy morn­ing, rarely seen for March in Hous­ton, Fos­ter talked about some of the high­lights of his in­volve­ment with China over the years.

“I have al­ways been in­ter­ested in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tion­ship, and I started with Latin Amer­ica first. By the time I was out of law school, I be­came in­ter­ested in Asia and par­tic­u­larly in China. Back in the 60s, China was closed off to the world. If any­thing, there was a lot of cu­rios­ity, un­known and mys­tique about China,” he said.

For Fos­ter, that cu­rios­ity about China led him on a path he never dreamed of.

It be­gan when he started work­ing for a large law firm and was given a case in­volv­ing claims against Shang­hai Light­ing and Power. “Right at the be­gin­ning of my le­gal ca­reer, I started to pay at­ten­tion to China,” he said.

Then US Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon and his Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Henry Kissinger landed in Bei­jing in 1972. It marked the first time a US pres­i­dent had vis­ited the People’s Repub­lic of China, and the visit ended 25 years of sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the two sides.

“I was ask­ing my­self, how could this hap­pen? Richard Nixon who made a ca­reer out of anti-com­mu­nism went to China. I was fas­ci­nated and read ev­ery­thing I could,” Fos­ter said.

Lit­tle did Fos­ter know that his budding friend­ship with the Hous­ton oil­man Ge­orge H.W. Bush would later greatly help in his role in shap­ing China-US re­la­tion­ships. “Our of­fices were close,” Fos­ter re­called. “I of­ten saw him walk­ing in the street and I talked to him.”

In 1975, Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford sent Bush to China as the US en­voy and to Fos­ter “that was an­other Texas con­nec­tion with China for me.”

When Chi­nese leader Deng Xiaop­ing made his his­tor­i­cal visit to Hous­ton in 1979, Fos­ter was among one of the 100 or so in­vited VIPs to join Deng at a rodeo in a small town out­side of Hous­ton.

When Deng came out of a Western stage­coach and put on a 10-gal­lon Stet­son cow­boy hat — now at the Na­tional Mu­seum of China on Tianan­men Square — Fos­ter said he was thrilled.

“I knew then that this was a his­tor­i­cal mo­ment, it was so sym­bolic — China’s leader in a Mao suit wear­ing a Western sym­bol, smil­ing at people,’’ he said.

Fos­ter con­sid­ers Deng one of the last century’s great men: “I think Deng was greater than Mao be­cause he led China out of chaos and the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, helped China re­cover to a right­ful place in his­tory. I think his­tory will give him greater credit for his role in build­ing mod­ern China.’’

In 1979, Fos­ter made his first visit to China as a mem­ber of the US China Peo­ples Friend­ship As­so­ci­a­tion.

“I had a fa­vor­able im­pres­sion of China dur­ing that trip,” he said. “People were still wear­ing Mao suits, but I could feel change was fer­ment­ing. China was com­ing out of the tur­moil caused by years of mis­man­age­ment.”

In 1981, Fos­ter be­came in­volved in an event that made in­ter­na­tional head­lines.

Li Cunxin, then a Chi­nese na­tional, re­fused to go back to China af­ter his ex­change pro­gram at Hous­ton Bal­let to pur­sue a more promis­ing ca­reer in the US. When Li, ac­com­pa­nied with his Amer­i­can fi­ance and sev­eral Amer­i­can friends, went to the Chi­nese con­sulate to in­form Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties of his de­ci­sion, he was not al­lowed to leave for 22 hours. More than 200 mem­bers of the press camped out­side the con­sulate.

As Li’s im­mi­gra­tion lawyer, Fos­ter went to the con­sulate to clear up what he thought were tech­ni­cal ques­tions that would only take 10 min­utes. In­stead, he spent many hours there and used his con­nec­tions to talk to the White House and the State Depart­ment, which even­tu­ally per­suaded Bei­jing to let Li go.

Fos­ter’s in­ter­ven­tion helped pre­vent the in­ci­dent from turn­ing into a diplo­matic dis­as­ter. When Li came out of the Con­sulate, he only spoke of his love for an Amer­i­can fel­low bal­let dancer. “So the next day the story shifted to a love story, Romeo and Juliet. If any­thing, Li and I con­spired to pro­tect the US-China re­la­tion­ship. A lot of people wanted to use Li po­lit­i­cally, but he kept it very sim­ple.”

Fos­ter ac­knowl­edges that he had some mis­giv­ings at the time.

“As a lawyer my first re­spon­si­bil­ity was to my client, but in do­ing so I thought I made a huge per­sonal sac­ri­fice be­cause I just as­sumed af­ter this in­ter­ven­tion some­how I would be black­balled. I would never get in­vited to China or the Con­sulate or is­sued a visa again. But that never hap­pened,’’ he said.

As for Li, Fos­ter said he be­came a lo­cal celebrity and his life story be­came a book — Mao’s Last Dancer — which was sub­se­quently made into a movie in 2009, and con­sulate of­fi­cials started go­ing to see per­for­mances of the Hous­ton Bal­let.


Hous­ton lawyer Charles Fos­ter’s deep in­volve­ment with China is closely tied to his per­sonal con­nec­tions.

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