January 11, 2013 8:06 pm

The man who made friends with Mao

The first American to join the Chinese Communist party in the 1940s tells about his extraordinary life
Sidney Rittenberg©Eduardo L. Rivera

There is a not inconsiderable history among the children of successful, prominent Jewish families of getting involved in leftwing politics. From the Marxes to the Milibands, it’s a well-trodden path. Few have taken this tradition quite as far, however, as Sidney Rittenberg, scion of a prominent Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina.

It was in the 1930s that Rittenberg rejected a career as a lawyer and became a trade union and civil rights activist. He then went a little further. He became a communist, learnt Chinese, went to China, joined Mao Zedong’s guerrillas fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, emerged after the communist victory as a senior party member close to Mao, ran Radio Peking, translated Mao’s thoughts into English, became a leading rabble rouser in the Cultural Revolution – and, by the by, was imprisoned for 16 years in solitary confinement, accused of being a US spy. Then he came back to the US and made a fortune advising American companies on how to get into China.

I first heard of this historical revolutionary figure in China, where he is known as Li Dunbai (it sounds a little like Rittenberg to Chinese ears). To this day, he is taught about in schools as a righteous American who helped build Chinese communism.

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Now 91, Rittenberg is not only alive, but living in Arizona – quite unusual for one honoured by Mao as an international communist fighter – and still running his company and teaching at a university. He is also on Facebook. The answer to an interview request came in five minutes. From his iPad. “You’re welcome,” he said.

For a veteran Chinese communist revolutionary, Rittenberg’s impish sense of humour comes as a surprise. Could I bring him anything from Britain? “I have always yearned for one of those old Scottish castles,” Rittenberg replied. “It could be disassembled, modular style, brought here and reassembled. I would, of course, require a tartan to match it.”

Even without the castle, Rittenberg greets me warmly on the doorstep. He looks, perhaps, 70. He was starved in Chinese jails, but never physically tortured – just mentally. Yulin Wang Rittenberg, his wife of 60 years, had it even tougher after the Cultural Revolution went bad on the couple in the late 1960s. She spent three years in a back-breaking labour camp – after being brutally beaten and made to sit in the doorway of the women’s restroom with a placard round her neck saying, “This is the unrepentant wife of a dog of an Imperialist spy.”

“Yulin, it’s the British invasion!” Rittenberg says. “Remember we watched The Iron Lady? So you know what to expect.” Rittenberg has a pronounced southern accent; when he says “China” the “i” is as long and drawn out as if we were shooting the breeze on a porch back in the Deep South.

He also has a warm, hospitable manner. Yet in photos from his China years – especially the one of him haranguing a crowd of adoring Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution – he looks terrifying. Lest one forget, this was one of the most vicious events in human history, a million Nazi Kristallnachts in an explosion of insanity several years long. And Sid, as people call him now, was one of its key figures – until he made the crucial error of upsetting Mme Mao, aka, Jiang Qing, the revolution’s psychopathic main leader. Then he became one of the victims.

. . .

Before we even sit down for the first of several interviews, there is the question of how to raise the trickier areas of Sid’s life. There is his complicity, albeit very indirect, in the death of perhaps 70 million people in the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine that preceded it. I also have to slip in the name “Lord Haw-Haw”; Sid broadcast – anonymously, in English – on national propaganda station Radio Peking from time to time. Heaven knows what that accent must have sounded like to those in the west he had left behind. Sinister, you would think.

Mao Zedong signs Rittenberg’s copy of the 'Little Red Book', Beijing, 1967©Sidney Rittenberg

Mao Zedong signs Rittenberg’s copy of the 'Little Red Book', Beijing, 1967

The clearer the incongruities and paradoxes of Sidney Rittenberg’s life become, the greater the problem of describing him in anything less than a weighty book. A 2001 autobiography published in the US makes a good start, but still leaves you wanting more. A new documentary on Rittenberg, The Revolutionary, currently doing the festival and art cinema rounds, makes compelling viewing, but is only 90 minutes long.

Rittenberg studied philosophy but dropped out of college aged 19 and applied to join the US Army the day after Pearl Harbor. More talented as a linguist than an infantryman, he was sent to China in 1945 as a GI interpreter. Honourably discharged after the war’s end, he stayed on and trekked 45 days on foot to Mao’s guerrilla camp at Yan’an where he became an active participant in the revolution. He was also an intimate of the leaders, spending days with Mao discussing the US, with which Mao was obsessed.

But Rittenberg also spent six years in jail, from 1949 to 1955 – the first in total darkness and sensory deprivation – after Stalin wrote to Mao to warn him that his American Jew was a US spy. Eventually he was cleared and rose to be a leading party propagandist, PR man, top-level translator and liaison with foreign journalists and dignitaries, a kind of media-friendly revolutionary without portfolio. He lived in luxury and was better paid than Mao.

Some might call Rittenberg a party hack. He was so keen on the Cultural Revolution that when he found he was exempt, as a foreigner, from the excoriating criticism sessions that drove many to madness or suicide, he launched a criticism campaign against himself, an apparently unique example, even in the cauldron of the time, of what might be called sado-narcissism. But it helped him become, at 45, leader of a Red Guard franchise: “The Rebel Regiment to Defend Mao Zedong Thought at the Broadcast Administration”. He was an icon across China – a jealous Jiang Qing, before she jailed him for a 10-year stretch, did say to him acidly, “You’re a little old to be a Red Guard, aren’t you?”

Released when she herself was jailed following Mao’s death, Rittenberg returned to the US aged 60 and was surprisingly well received by the Carter administration – fostering a feeling in intelligence circles that he had been a CIA spy all along. He started teaching evening classes, Yulin ran cookery courses, and they founded Rittenberg Associates, which has helped businesses from Colgate-Palmolive to Warner Music to Intel, Microsoft and PwC find their way in China.

So, how much of the communist is left in Sidney Rittenberg? “Nothing,” he says firmly. “I was drawn to the communist movement through the study of philosophy. And given the suffering around us in the south, it was the right response. But I was in total delusion as to what was really happening in China. After I got out of prison the second time and saw the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism were wrong, I felt a free man. Today, my politics are … well, I think one day there will be a better system. We have to wait for capitalism to be properly cooked. We need an abundance of the basic means of living and better understanding. The point is how to make the capitalist system work.”

Sidney Rittenberg addresses Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, late 1960s

Rittenberg addresses Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution, late 1960s

Rittenberg has a tendency to correct perceptions of communist China, which can give the impression that there is still revolutionary fire in his belly, but it is more likely that he just knows more about his subject than anyone else. He defends Mao when he feels he was misunderstood. Mao is often accused of boasting that he “buried alive more intellectuals than the Emperor Qin Shihuangdi”, who was notorious for interring scholars alive. “He did say we buried more,” Rittenberg explains, “but he didn’t mean physically.”

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

So do Americans regard him as a traitor? His face takes on a bleak, haunted look, but it seems they don’t. When he turned up at the US Embassy in Beijing in 1980 saying he’d lost his American passport on the road to Yan’an in 1947 and wanted to go home, they swiftly got him a new one and welcomed him and the couple’s four children to the States. “If they think I’m a traitor, they don’t say it within my hearing. I belong to a very conservative country club here and have a seat at the top table.”

Rittenberg’s prolonged, brutal treatment in China drove him close to mental collapse; did this maybe put him off both Chinese culture and the politics, just a bit? His answer has more than a little PR spin about it, a faint, albeit amiable, shadow of the skilled propagandist he was.

“A revolution can’t be as civilised as inviting guests to dinner. And it wasn’t. But I don’t think the cruelty was specifically Chinese. I grew up in the south and saw police brutality in Birmingham and elsewhere. It was worse, because this was racist sadism. I think what Chinese people did had to do with growing up under the strong tradition of feudalism. I think of it like the splitting of the atom. The stronger the bonds are at the beginning, the more energy is released. But it’s important for the whole human race to know how people behave when no holds are barred, when anything is allowed and sanctioned.”

When he was imprisoned, he says, he didn’t hate his false accusers. “It was like you have a sweetheart whom you’re devoted to, and you’ve been together a long time, and all of a sudden she appears with a lawyer and accuses you of rape. How can you think that of me? How could this happen?” He used prison, he says, to become an even more devoted revolutionary, reading the whole of Das Kapital in Chinese, and becoming an ever more fervent devotee of the thoughts of Mao.

“They did say once, ‘If you’re a real revolutionary, you should be able to stand this test.’ And that was all I needed.” He was even offered the chance to be sent back to the US, but – without knowing that back home the McCarthy committee would have eaten him alive – decided to stay and study like a demon. He became a Mao monk. “When I was going mad, I had nightmares of Mao trying to cut me up, but consciously I was just getting into ever deeper study of his writings and deciding he was a genius.”

. . .

So how does the man on the gated estate in Arizona, who once played gin rummy with Mao and introduced him to the dictator’s much-loved Laurel and Hardy, assess Mao today?

“I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history. He was a genius, but his genius got completely out of control, so he was a great historic leader, and a great historic criminal. He gave himself the right to conduct social experiments that involved upturning the lives of hundreds of millions of people, when he didn’t know what the outcome might be. And that created famines in which tens of millions died, and a revolution in which nobody knows how many died.”

Mao, Rittenberg believes, began to feel guilt for his more catastrophic actions. “In 1967, I saw him sitting on the Tiananmen gate tower with a look of complete anguish on his face. I think he was upset that things weren’t going right.” But at a personal level, he says, “although he said nice things about me, I didn’t feel any warmth. He liked to meet for a lively, democratic discussion on why his policies were correct. If you disagreed, you were a counter-revolutionary. He was an enlightened, ingenious strategist, but the narrow peasant envy and prejudice were obviously there all the time.”

Rittenberg with his wife Yulin Wang Rittenberg at their home in Arizona©Jonathan Margolis

Rittenberg with his wife Yulin Wang Rittenberg at their home in Arizona

Rittenberg’s own part in China’s history means that he carries regrets with him into old age. “I took part in victimising innocent, good people. It was institutionalised bullying and scapegoating, and I couldn’t see it because everything about the regime was good for me and I felt I was part of a movement for human progress, freedom and happiness. I wasn’t feeling what happened to other people. It’s a kind of corruption, exactly the kind of corruption that ruins the whole thing.

“I should have taken the side of the people fighting for the right to speak and have different opinions. I should have quit. Instead I continued to let these things be done in my name. I couldn’t get down off that high horse. There was too much glory and glamour. I believed I was part of history. I couldn’t let it go. That’s what you get with ideology and power. You learn to harden your heart in the name of the wonderful new world you’re building. Once you do that, you do all kinds of things. I did.”

And then there’s today’s China. Does Rittenberg’s old revolutionary self despise the country’s consumerism and even the small, green shoots of a less restricted society? Or does his new, capitalist self admire it?

Rittenberg has publicly, if gently, opposed the regime’s stance on Tibet, on Taiwan and the Falun Gong. “Look, the regime has lifted more people out of poverty than has ever been done before. They’ve solved food, shelter and clothing. The percentage of people living below that line is below that in America. The real challenge is adjusting to the new society in political and social terms, and I think they’re doing that. They’re not suppressing local protests. They still won’t allow dissident intellectuals to become a focal point for other intellectuals. But the reason for that is not the leaders but the police, who are like police everywhere.”

Sidney Rittenberg leaves one with the impression of the world’s most dedicated and tenacious dilettante. Even after 35 years in China, nearly half of them in solitary confinement, he still makes it sound like a spectacular teenage rebellion. And he makes no attempt to deny his roots. He’s remarkably Jewish in many ways. He points out with pride that most of the western leftists who fetched up in Beijing to help the communists were also Jewish intellectuals, many from Britain.

I leave him with a classic Jewish joke. It’s one about a nice Jewish American boy who goes to India and becomes a guru. After many years, his mother treks to his ashram. She is allowed to see him, but permitted to speak only six words. “Fine,” she says, then turns to the guru. “Sheldon,” she scolds, “enough is enough. Come home.”

As we reach the punchline, I begin to worry that Rittenberg is so angry, he has had a heart attack. There is a wheezing sound, but it becomes clear that he is just laughing so hard, he can’t catch his breath. And slapping his knees. And shouting out, “Sheldon, enough is enough! That’s me! That’s me!”

The Revolutionary’ will be shown in London on March 14 as part of the Pan-Asia Film Festival

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