Sidney Rittenberg: Reflections on a lifetime in China

Mao Zedong and Sidney Rittenberg

Sidney Rittenberg is the subject of a new documentary film called “The Revolutionary.” He is an American who lived in China from 1945 to 1980. His arrival was partly coincidence: he was drafted during World War II and sent to China after studying Chinese language at Stanford University. He arrived just as the Japanese were surrendering, and witnessed injustices committed by the Kuomintang government against its own people.

After the war ended, Rittenberg decided to stay in China and seek out the leaders of the Communist revolution that was raging across the countryside. He traveled to the mountains in Yan’an where the leaders were based, and met with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. They told him they needed a native English speaker to explain their policies to the United States. In helping them, Rittenberg had the sense of fulfilling a historical need. China was the most populous and most ancient country in the world, and it was in the process of reinventing itself. He felt he had his “finger on the pulse of history.”

Throughout his time in China, Rittenberg was connected with the upper echelons of the Communist Party leadership. He has known every major leader in Communist China, including Mao, Zhou Enlai, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Rittenberg is recognized throughout China by his Chinese name, Li Dunbai (李敦白).

He witnessed, and took part in, the formation of modern China, and lived all its complexities. He spent a total of 16 years in solitary confinement and was a powerful proponent of the Cultural Revolution before himself falling victim to its chaos. The first time he was jailed was at the request of Joseph Stalin, who sent a written communiqué to Mao accusing Rittenberg of being a spy sent by the Americans to undermine the revolution. He was thrown into solitary confinement and not released until after Stalin’s death, six years later. The second time, he offended Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who had become powerful during the Cultural Revolution as one of the ruthless “Gang of Four.” Rittenberg ended up once again in prison, in solitary confinement for 10 years. His wife remained loyal to him all that time, and after he was released at the end of the Cultural Revolution, they moved together back to the United States.

Rittenberg is now 91 years old, and he and his wife provide consulting services for large American corporations with interests in China. The film “The Revolutionary” was created over a 5-year period and produced by Irv Drasnin, Don Sellers and Lucy Ostrander, in cooperation with Rittenberg himself. The tagline reads: “Mao’s call for a Cultural Revolution was answered by tens of millions of Chinese… and one American.”

The following is an interview conducted by email with Rittenberg about the film and his experiences in China:

How did the idea for “The Revolutionary” come about?
The idea of a film on my story occurred to acclaimed producer Lucy Ostrander, when she read a New York Times profile of me. She had long ago filmed me for her documentary on Anna Louise Strong.

In the film you talk about very traumatic events in your life. Was it difficult to do this in front of the camera?
I had no problem discussing unhappy personal experiences for this film. I had complete confidence in the producers, Lucy, Don Sellers, and the producer/interviewer Irv Drasnin. Irv used to produce the Charles Kuralt news program, and has done outstanding documentary work on China. I found him easy to chat with. Besides, during the most trying times in solitary I had made up my mind to try to remember everything that happened, thinking that  in this way I could avoid future post-traumatic issues. It’s like getting a splinter in your skin, I thought: if you let the skin close over it, it may hurt for the rest of your life and you may not even remember why. That approach worked.

What first inspired you to travel to Yan’an after the war and meet the Chinese Communist Party leaders?
I had learned something about the Chinese Communist movement at the US Army Language School at Stanford University, and later made contact with underground CCP members in Kunming and Shanghai. I believed that the New China under the CCP would be a great democracy, a land of peace and plenty which would be a blessing for America and for the world.

I envisioned the world’s oldest country reinventing itself as the youngest.  I saw a US/China alliance as the hope of the world: America had the greatest store of exactly what China needed – capital, science, technology; China had what America needed – a vast new market and huge numbers of friends on the strategic arc of Asia. As an American with Chinese language skills, I wanted to do whatever I could to build bridges between Americans and Chinese, to help bring that about.

You joined the CPC in 1946, and two years later were imprisoned under suspicion of being an American spy. You were held in solitary confinement for 6 years before being released. What made you stay in China and remain loyal to the Party after that? Could you have left if you wanted to?
I could easily have left China in 1955, after my release. In fact, Chinese leaders offered to finance whatever endeavor I might want to start up in America. Before that, I had been told after the first year in solitary – in 1950 – that if I didn’t want to wait for my case to be resolved I could return to America then, and never come back to China. I didn’t give this option a moment’s thought – I had made up my mind to work on building bridges between Chinese and Americans, and I saw no reason why I should give that  up.

My loyalty to the ideals of Communism never wavered during those six years in solitary. If anything, it grew stronger. I was determined that I would not let my personal disaster affect my belief in what I thought was true and good. My father taught me to try to never let my view of the truth be affected by whether or not it was good for me.

In your Tedx talk, you describe your experiences with solitary confinement and the sleep-deprivation tactics that were used to break you down so you would confess. Can you describe what “Freud” was, and how that knowledge helped you maintain your sanity?
My first thought when I was locked up in a dark cell was that “Reason is stronger than Freud.” By “Freud” (whom I had never read), I simply meant the fear of repressed emotions, of isolation, and other psychological problems.

I thought, I am a student (and try to be a  practitioner) of scientific philosophy. I should be able to analyze my situation and work out ways for dealing with it so that I don’t end up seriously traumatized, like many elder cadres whom I knew and who had been through severe political harassment. Ultimately, I think this reliance on rational thinking, on clinging to my chosen life purpose, on learning to harness positive emotions to deal with negative ones, and to modulate moods, turned out to be my salvation – even though some of my specific political beliefs turned out later to be unfounded.

A BBC interviewer asked you last year whether the Communist Party of China exists today. You answered, “Not by any definition I know of…today you don’t find much morality.” At what point do you think the Party ceased to exist? Was that decline inevitable?
The CCP as a revolutionary organization that  inspired and aroused the Chinese people ceased to exist long ago. This was made official two or three years ago, when the Party announced that it was no longer a revolutionary Party, but a ruling Party – the Party in power.

Before coming to power, the Party had no source of strength except for whatever popular support they could arouse by actions that fulfilled the people’s most urgent needs (land, freedom from oppression, fair pay and treatment  for working people, respect and opportunity for intellectuals, national pride and independence, etc). They had to work hard, be democratic, and practice humility in order to win the people’s support. After coming to power in 1949, the new laws required that everyone recognize them as the rulers and their ideology as the only correct one. From servants of the people, they gradually, and not entirely consciously, turned into their masters. Gone was the democratic spirit, the humility, the tolerance for other views. From a Party that served the people, they became the rulers of the people. This was already becoming a qualitatively different Party.

Still, many of the old virtues remained and there were repeated attempts to maintain close ties between leaders and led and to maintain a plebeian style. Then, with the Cultural Revolution, the old Party was, by and large, physically destroyed. The old cadres were brutally persecuted and began rapidly fading away and dying off. The entire Party organization (except for the military branches) from political bureau down ceased operations in the spring of 1967, yielding place to the Cultural Revolution Leading Group. Party offices, with their files and dossiers, were sealed and there were no meetings – outside of the military.

The Party organization that was later restored was a mere shadow of the original – meetings were sporadic and pro-forma, the spirit was gone, the party became a mere machine for exercising power over the government and the people. Official corruption and careerism, rare before the Cultural Revolution, now became prevalent and systemic. There are vigorous forces within the CCP today who are determined to clean up and revive the Party, with a renewed spirit of dedication to serving the people and leading them onward to a better life. They work for democratic political reforms, along specific Chinese lines, that could make this possible. But they have their work cut out for them – it will not be a short – term nor an easy task.

You wrote propaganda during the first few months of the Cultural Revolution, in which you defended the position that only the most fervent followers of Mao should be considered genuine revolutionaries and patriots. In a small way, your words would have contributed to the increasingly violent radicalism of the time. How did you feel about what you were writing at the time when you were writing it?
At the time that I was doing radical pamphleteering during the Cultural Revolution, I fervently believed in what I was saying. I thought that the Cultural Revolution was a great movement to democratize Socialism, to make the collective serve the individual more than vice versa – that, literally, in the words of the Internationale, a better world was in birth. Only the purest Marxists, wholeheartedly dedicated  to the people’s cause, could provide leadership in this new era.

For this reason, for example, even though Zhou Enlai was a dearly beloved friend and supporter, when I received opposite instructions from him and from Jiang Qing, I foolishly listened to Jiang Qing, thinking that she represented a purer form of “Mao Zedong Thought.” As a result, I attended the Red Guard struggle meeting against Wang Guangmei (Madame Liu Shaoqi), which I have deeply regretted ever since. I was shocked at the violence in the Cultural Revolution, but I thought that  this was the unavoidable accompaniment of convulsive social change such as I saw going on. All of this was, of course, quite mistaken. Anarchistic democracy swiftly turned into worse despotism than anything in the pre-Cultural Revolution bureaucracy, and I ended up sitting in a little cell with my ideals for another ten years.

When the Cultural Revolution began, you were not a bright-eyed Red Guard: You were already a seasoned Party member and had experienced both the Great Leap Forward and long-term imprisonment at the hands of the Party. What inspired you about the Cultural Revolution? Why did you rally so strongly behind it?
The answer is in the above – I only got to take part in the first (and worst) 14 months of the Cultural Revolution, but I saw it as a great democratic uprising which was creating a new, lively, democratic form of Socialism. People elected their own leaders, formed their own political organizations, published their own opinions – it seemed like a marvelous new world, while it lasted. I was thrilled to be a part of it, and didn’t realize that it was conceived as a stage in the establishment of a “total dictatorship of the proletariat,” in Mao’s words. I thought he was the great liberator, who was really introducing a vibrant  democratic society.

You have said that in the 1960s, you once failed to protect friends who were singled out for harsh criticism.  At the time, did you feel you were acting on your own impetus? Or did you feel you were being coerced?
I didn’t feel that I was being coerced when I failed to protect friends from criticism. Actually, I supported the criticism of these people – with two exceptions. I stuck my neck out, in word and in writing for two old friends, old General Wang Zhen and Hubei Governor Zhang Tixue. I knew them both well enough that I was convinced they could not be guilty of undermining Chairman Mao, and I wrote this to the Party leadership.

As for close friends who were wrongfully stigmatized as “bad people,” I stopped speaking to them – but I considered that this was a part of my loyalty to the revolution, not something done under coercion. Earlier, during the “Anti-Rightist” campaign in 1957, I did go along with the harsh criticism of some friends, partly under “internal coercion” – I had just emerged from six years in solitary, and I was afraid of arousing suspicion. I realized later that this was part of why I supported the criticism, even though I had begun to have secret doubts about the use of class struggle.

To what extent do you think the legacy of the Cultural Revolution continues to shape Chinese society today? Are there any lasting effects that you observe?
I think the Cultural Revolution has not been carefully studied, the experience is not generally discussed in the schools, and the lessons have not been drawn. I don’t see signs of after-effects among people at large, but it is obvious in the exaggerated fear that most leaders have of “turbulence”. This tends to make them frightened of the badly needed democratic reforms, in spite of the fact that tardy reforms could easily lead to major turbulence…

I don’t see any relationship between the handling of the Bo Xilai case and the CR – it is being handled in the way that all such matters have been handled, starting before the CR. Bo made crude attempts to generate a kind of CR-style personal charisma around himself by using methods reminiscent of CR methods, but it was superficial, cynical, and top-down, not bottom-up.

Bao Tong, who was high up in the Zhao Ziyang administration before being detained for revealing state secrets and making counter-revolutionary propaganda just before the 1989 Tiananmen protests,  recently gave an interview in which he said it is impossible to be involved in the current political system in China without being corrupt. He commented, “If I were in the current system, I’d be corrupt too.” Would you agree with his sentiment?
I think the highly admirable Bao Tong may have been referring to the fact that  an official who tries to remain clean and dedicated will often be undermined by the corrupt  officials surrounding him, and their devious ways, and will find it very difficult to carry out his duties. I don’t think he meant  that there are literally no good officials, because there are.

Where were you the day Mao died? What did you feel when you heard the news?
I was in solitary when Mao died, and it  was very strange. Zhou Enlai died in January of that year, and I wept for days, as though I had lost my own father. When Mao died, I felt – intellectually – that this was a much, much greater loss, that China and the world had lost their most hopeful leader, it was a terrible tragedy. And yet, I did not shed a tear. At the time, I couldn’t understand it – why no tears for the Great Helmsman? It seems that my “emotional sense” was smarter than my “intellectual sense”.

You now act as a consultant to large American businesses looking to understand the Chinese market. Yet you have been a champion of communism all your life. Did you lose faith in communism? If not, how do you reconcile those two things?
I have definitely lost faith in the Communist Party core doctrine of what is called Marxism-Leninism, based on the dictatorship of the proletariat. Experience taught me that dictatorship cannot lead to more democracy, but only to more dictatorship.

As for the ideals of communism – a future classless society of abundance, equality, world peace, and universal brotherhood – I believed in them long before I ever heard of the Communist Party, and I do so now, more than ever. As to how to attain those goals, at present I have no clue. But one thing is clear – growing the economy everywhere, advancing universal education, and promoting democratic development are surely key steps in that  direction. For that reason, I feel perfectly happy working with good people who can contribute to those ends and who can conduct win/win business with China. That doesn’t at all prevent me from enthusiastically promoting US/China friendship and understanding, or from pursuing progressive politics in America. Or from ardently supporting the (non-violent) “Occupiers”.

What do you like most about contemporary China, and what do you think is the country’s biggest problem?
What I like most about China today is the vibrant, optimistic spirit of the people. They are confidant of a brighter future. They are proud of their country’s progress, and (despite millions of complaints and protests) are basically pleased with where their government has led them. China, under CPC leadership, has for the most part solved the basic problem  of food, shelter, and clothing. China, emerging from the Dark Ages a little over half a century ago, still has some people living below the poverty line, but the percentage is lower than that in the USA—and what excuse do we have?

They face many problems, but I feel sure that, in their own good time, they will deal with them. This general spirit is, unfortunately, in sharp contrast to what I find here in America today.

China’s biggest problem? The need to re-identify their soul, to establish a sense of purpose in young people aside from making money and narrow nationalism, to restore and carry forward China’s brilliant legacy of philosophic thinking, above and beyond commonplace aphorisms from Confucius — including the study of positive elements in Mao Zedong’s philosophy.

Do Americans and Chinese still understand one another as badly as they used to?  What do most Americans not understand about China?
I’m afraid  the level of understanding among most Chinese and most Americans has not changed much for the better. There are, however, growing numbers of Chinese who have studied, worked, visited, or traded in America; and of Americans who have visited or worked in China. Among them, there is a much better understanding than before. There are two major threats to the growth in understanding, however.

On our side, the tendency of the financial barons, and their political spokespeople, to make China the scapegoat for the financial morass into which they have led us. This tends to poison public opinion against China. On the Chinese side, the tough foreign policy stance on issues like the South China Sea tends to anger and frighten Americans. The Chinese attitude towards the USA is usually courteous and reasonable, but the attitude towards China’s Southeast Asian neighbors affects public opinion as well as actual relationships.

A key point in improving understanding is that American opinion has to accept the impermissibility of outright conflict between the USA and China, and therefore base our attitude towards China on working out solutions, not on trying to impose changes on China or on “pivoting” military strength to areas surrounding China. Many American leaders know this, but they sometimes ignore our country’s basic interests for their own political gain.

What are the future prospects for foreigners looking to do business in China? Do you expect the business environment to become more open or more closed in the coming years?
I believe that the business environment for foreign firms in China will continue to improve, and that  the Chinese domestic market will continue to open up, as will investment opportunities. The road will, of course, not be smooth, nor will it be without bumps and zigzags, as in the past. At the same time, resistance from Chinese competitors will continue to stiffen and the increasingly powerful lobbying efforts of Chinese conglomerates will continue to create glitches in the growth of foreign participation in China’s development. But, in the long run, this resistance will be swept aside by the growing interdependence of Chinese and foreign economies.

You now live back in the US, but are obviously still very involved in China. What do you make of the narrative of American decline? Do you think America will be able to pull itself back up again?
Whether or not America declines is entirely up to us. If we decide that we are beaten by the rise of the BRICS so that  we can no longer compete, and that our politics are doomed to continue in the dreary monopoly of two out-moded, hopelessly dishonest political parties — both of them bought and paid for by the great parasites on Wall Street — and  that we are incapable of a democratic revival in American politics, then we are surely doomed to a very unpleasant decline.

But I am convinced that neither of those two premises is necessarily true. We can vigorously expand our economy, based on our strong points in skill sets, electronics, communications, clean energy, space operations and other areas of technology. We can stimulate and inspire this expansion by a surge in citizen political activity which breaks the hold of parasitic monopoly finance capital (now 40% of our GDP) over our political life, which restores our country’s democratic spirit, extends it to economic as well as political democracy, and gives the innovators and the producers a powerful incentive to maintain our advanced position in the world economy. We can adjust our government’s financial policy to the need to give priority to increasing the purchasing power of the consumers, rather than enforcing the kind of austerity which attempts to resolve economic difficulties by penalizing the poor, while the government uses tax-payers’ money to finance the profiteering super-rich. When we have this kind of democratic upsurge, breaking the current two-party doldrums, then America will surely continue to grow and prosper. The barrier to progress, and the need for widespread and direct public action, has been highlighted by the brave action of the “Occupiers.”

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