Charles Foster: knot to China
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.