Rodeos to rockets: The Texan who tightened ties with China

For Charles Foster, the moment when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping climbed down from a Western stagecoach and put on a 10-gallon Stetson cowboy hat in Simonton, Texas, was thrilling and symbolic.

“I knew then that this was a historic moment, it was so symbolic – China’s leader in a Mao suit wearing a Western symbol, smiling at people. At that moment, I knew history was being made,” said Foster, who was among the 100 VIPs invited to join Deng at a rodeo in the small town outside Houston in February 1979.

More than three decades after that trip, Foster, the founding chairman of US-China Partnerships and head of the Texas chapter of the Asia Society, was again thrilled to see Deng’s cowboy hat on display at the National Museum of China in central Beijing. However, someone had carefully flattened the top of the hat.

Over the years, Foster managed to convey the information that Stetsons are supposed to have a crease on top – and when he returned to the museum, to his relief, the hat was displayed correctly.

Foster’s interest in China began in 1972 when the United States president, Richard Nixon, and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, visited the Chinese capital. The trip ended 25 years of separation between the two sides.

“To me, it was an out-of-this-world experience, like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon. I was fascinated and read everything I could,” Foster said.

At that time, he began to form a personal relationship with then Houston oilman George H.W. Bush, who in 1975 became the US envoy to China.

Foster, who is chairman of global immigration law firm Foster LLP, has forged many strong bonds with China since first visiting the country in 1979 as a member of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association. Back then, he saw Chinese people dressed primarily in gray and green, and Beijing’s streets were full of bicycles.

In the mid-1980s, he met Chinese actress Chen Ye (now Lily Chen Foster) who was studying at the University of Houston. They fell in love, married and raised two sons who speak fluent Chinese.

In the late ’90s, Foster was involved in helping China gain permanent normal trade relations with the US. He helped the Houston Great Partnership draft a support resolution and flew to Washington with other prominent businesspeople and managed to secure a couple of key swing votes in favor of granting China the status. He considers it one of his greatest achievements in building the US-China relationship.

As chairman of the Asia Society-Texas Center for more than 20 years, Foster has presided over many China policy programs and hosted ambassadors from the US and China. He has gotten to know many statesmen and become close friends with some, including former ambassador Yang Jiechi, who is now a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

Thanks to his personal ties with Yang and former president George W.H. Bush, in 2002, Foster successfully lobbied China’s then-president Jiang Zemin to make a side trip to Houston on his first state visit to the US. Foster later got a note from Bush thanking him for helping improve US-China relations.

When former NBA star Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2002, Foster became Yao’s lawyer, and he and his wife became close friends with the Yao family.

“That was almost natural given the fact Yao and his parents, like my wife Lily, were Shanghainese and shared that special bond,” Foster said.

Getting to know Yao was a privilege, Foster said, as he watched him grow from being a model NBA player into a representative of an entire nation. He said he was heartened to see Yao speak out about the importance of preserving African wildlife and the harm caused by ivory imports to China, as well as against the consumption of shark fin soup.

“Many Americans learned about China through Yao’s extraordinary playing skills and personality,” Foster said. “No one could dislike his extraordinary combination of basketball talent and modesty, coupled with an unusual sense of humor.

“While at first he used an interpreter, it was not long before Yao showed an uncanny ability to deal with the press in English and to answer all the inevitable questions with grace and humor.”

The friendship enabled Foster to get Yao to join a trade discussion about Houston led by the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, last year in Beijing.

Foster still has a poster from Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts marking what he calls the first link between Houston and China, when the museum hosted an exhibition of Chinese paintings in 1978.

Firsthand witness

Over the years, both business and personal ties have taken him to China again and again. He has been a firsthand witness to China’s changes over the past 40 years.

When Foster first visited the country in 1979, he said it was like going to a sealed-off world – a country frozen in its past.

“Today, China does not even come close to resembling what it used to be 40 years ago,” he said. “Today, China is ultramodern in so many ways – it has not only developed its economy but also has built impressive up-to-date infrastructure. We have to give Deng credit for his flexibility over dogma to do it.”

Foster sees China’s achievements as not just limited to the economy. China could barely compete in the Olympic Games 40 years ago. Today, the country’s athletes are competitive in a variety of sports and make news in the arenas.

In culture and the arts, China has also made great strides. Foster cited movies as an example. This year’s domestic box-office revenues are expected to surpass those in the US, a big change from his first visit, when the country had only a handful of movie theaters.

China’s success should be emulated by other developing countries, Foster said.

“Granted, other countries will have their own cultural heritage and may keep a multiparty system, but any developing country would be impressed by what China has done in the past 40 years, impressed by the fact China was able to develop flexible economic plans irrespective of political dogma,” he said.

President Xi Jinping has said China is entering a new era of openness, which will take the country’s development to the next level. Foster said he believes that while it may be impossible to achieve rates of economic growth equal to the past 20 years, future changes could be just as transformational.

“China has a great advantage because it can both plan and implement long-range strategy in a much more predictable way than the US,” he said. “China does a great job planning and looking ahead. We have a system we would not trade, but the downside is that the politics often prevents US leaders from looking beyond two-week news cycles.”

China’s system provides a predictable platform to continue its remarkable development, he said.

In addition, Foster said he thinks China does better than many other countries in developing leaders from the lower levels.

“When they get to the top rank they will have had experiences in various sectors of the economy. They have the expertise to run a country with a vast population and complexity,” he said.

Forty years of opening-up has helped lift more than 740 million people out of poverty and made China into a powerful country.

“The story of China should be more applauded and appreciated in the West. However, in the US, we tend to focus on the immediate issues and problems – the trade deficit, incidents in the South China Sea, Taiwan, or whatever the issue of the day is,” Foster said.

“Secondly, American citizens don’t know much about other countries, including China. The public has little appreciation of China’s history. That history drives the leadership policy decisions, just as the US’ history drives its decisions.”

The most pressing issue for China is to have a good public relations strategy to better engage the Western audience, he said. “China is powerful, but at times it overreacts to situations and does itself a disservice.”

In addition, while China is big and powerful, there is a danger in that US President Donald Trump loves China one minute then portraits it as an enemy the next.

Foster suggested that Xi should duplicate what Deng did 40 years ago by showing a friendly face directly to the American public.

“Act like an American politician to show the humane side. Hug a person, kiss a baby, visit an Iowa farm or come to Texas to ride rodeo,” he said. “If American people see you as a regular person, that would help the relationship.”