An American who lived the history of Mao's rise and fall
"I never meant to stay in China.... I never even meant to go to China."Skip to next paragraph
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The contradiction defines Sidney Rittenberg's life and world. Mr. Rittenberg knows China's epic Communist revolution intimately, not as a witness, but a participant – often on the wrong side of history.
Not many people can still close their eyes and recall playing cards and folk dancing with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the young rebels in the bean-oil lit caves of Yanan. But Rittenberg can. The idealistic Jewish boy from Charleston, S.C., stayed behind when the US Army left China, dreaming of a new social order where skin color and ethnicity wouldn't matter.
Madame Sun Yat-Sen, wife of China's founder, got him a UN relief job. He later joined the Communist Party, became a top cadre, translated Mao, rose in the broadcast department, married twice, played politics on the far left. Twice he was thrown in prison, once by Stalin and once by Mao – getting out only when those men died.
Rittenberg left China after 35 years, in 1980, battered and bruised, sadder and wiser, but with his spirit intact – still delighting in the language and people of China.
Today, the man who urged on Page 1 of the People's Daily to fight "until the international workers revolution proceeds to its conclusion!" is a business consultant in Seattle and Beijing.
China today is no longer the same country, of course, Rittenberg says. The days of no hot water or stoves, and of community baths are over. Chinese are proud that their rising position and voice is gaining its due respect.
But China's spectacular rise carries hidden dangers, mainly for itself, he says. The nation is "at a crossroads, a life-and-death juncture, 70 years after the Long March." The top problem is a lack of imparted moral and spiritual values, one reason for leader Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" program.
"There are a lot of unhappy intellectuals, old party members, young people with high ideals, peasants, and farmers.... They hate the new corruption and the vice ... making money as No. 1.," he says. "They don't have power, are docile and patient – but beware the anger of the patient man. I have to ask about China, 'What does it mean to build a strong economy, but to lose your soul?' " he asks, paraphrasing the New Testament.
Rittenberg's own soul has been extensively searched since leaving China. He admits to mistakes, naivete, and blindness – particularly his zeal in backing the Cultural Revolution, the terror and fear between 1965 and 1975. It was a time of "insane ideology" when people "hardened their hearts and blocked out all human feeling in the name of doing good."
"I didn't see what Mao was doing," he says. "Mao betrayed his own promises. He unleashed the students to destroy his enemies, all in the name of democracy.... I didn't see it then, what 'class struggle' really meant."
Rittenberg's story is that of a man who "loved not wisely, but too well," he suggests. He is no longer a party member.
Rittenberg grew up a lawyer's son at a time when, he says, "No white man in South Carolina had ever been convicted of rape or murder of a black person – they weren't considered human. I felt the world as it was, was not acceptable. When I came to China, I thought they had the answer.... During the Cultural Revolution, I thought, 'Wow, this is the real real new world!'
"If you asked me [then] about Libya, say, I could ... tick off every answer in terms of class analysis. But now I've lost all those answers. I just have questions."