6:37am

Sat October 20, 2012
Asia

An American 'Revolutionary' In China

Originally published on Mon October 22, 2012 5:37 pm

Sidney Rittenberg went to China as an American GI at the end of World War II and fell in love with the country. He was discharged as a Chinese translator for the U.S. Army, but decided to stay there.

By the time Rittenberg came back to the United States, more than 30 years later, he had become one of only a few American citizens to join the Chinese Communist Party. He translated English for Chairman Mao Zedong, told off Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and endured 16 years of solitary confinement in Chinese prisons.

Rittenberg saw Chinese history unfold, from the founding of the People's Republic of China to the Great Leap Forward, great famines and the Cultural Revolution.

Now an adviser for American corporations that want to do business in China, Rittenberg is the subject of a new documentary, The Revolutionary. He told Weekend Edition host Scott Simon why he refers to Chairman Mao as both a hero and criminal.

"He pulled the nation together and started China on a path of industrial development," Rittenberg says. "[He was a] criminal because after coming into power he felt that he had the right to launch these social experiments that messed up the lives of hundreds of millions of people."

For Love Of Another Country

Shortly after joining the Chinese Communist Party, Rittenberg was accused of being a foreign spy and put in solitary confinement for six years. He wasn't a spy, he says, and in fact was a sympathizer and participant in the party. That didn't matter to the ruling regime.

"Under that sort of system, there is nobody that is ever really safe," he says. "They don't have the understanding that if each person is not secured under the law, that nobody is really secure."

After his release, Rittenberg remained in China and began working as a journalist and translator for the Chinese government's English radio service. He ended up marrying a Chinese woman and started a family.

In 1968, he was put in solitary confinement again for almost 10 years, and his wife was sent to a labor camp.

"[She] suffered terribly in an atmosphere of ... anti-foreign sentiment and action," he says. "She held her head high and kept saying 'My husband is ... a good man [and] you're wrong.' "

After spending 35 years of his life in China — 16 of those in prison — Rittenberg moved to the U.S. in 1980. He and his wife now run a consulting firm that provides assistance to businesses that work with Chinese companies, but still return to China once a year.

Change In China May Be Slow

Despite China's massive growth over the past few decades, Rittenberg says, the future of the nation is still unclear.

"Everyone seems to agree ... that now there must be further reforms, particularly political reforms [but] also an economic reform," he says. He says China's economy needs to change from one driven largely by exports to one that is targeted at the domestic market.

China's top leadership is likely to change soon; a Communist Party congress is slated to convene in early November. How much of an impact China's new leaders will have, Rittenberg says, will partially depend on loosening controls on the press and protecting whistle-blowers from retaliation.

"My own guess is that there will be some incremental progress on these issues," he says, "but I think it will be quite a long time before there is more substantial progress and change."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sidney Rittenberg went to China as an American GI, at the end of World War II, and he fell in love with the country. He was discharged as a Chinese translator for the U.S. Army, but decided to stay in China. By the time he came back to the United States more than 30 years later, he had become the only American citizen to join the Chinese Communist Party. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Although he is among a select few, Rittenberg is not the only American citizen to join the Chinese Communist Party.] He translated English for Chairman Mao. He told off Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and endured 16 years of solitary confinement in Chinese prisons. He saw Chinese history unfold, from the founding of the People's Republic of China to the Great Leap Forward, great famines and the Cultural Revolution.

And now, Sidney Rittenberg advises U.S. corporations who want to do business in China. He is the subject of a new documentary, called "The Revolutionary." He joins us from member station KPLU in Tacoma, Washington. Mr. Rittenberg, thanks so much for being with us.

SIDNEY RITTENBERG: It's so great to be here with you, Scott.

SIMON: You know, I think the only other person that I could imagine asking this question of, would be Henry Kissinger. I don't get to ask this question a lot. What was Mao really like?

RITTENBERG: He was a rather aloof, slow-moving, slow-talking person. When we would play Chinese gin rummy together - with Zhou Enlai and Hu Sarti(ph), and the other leaders - they would all tease each other and cuff each other around. But he would sit there, paying attention to his cards, and they would not pull him into that kind of camaraderie. He was a bit aloof.

SIMON: You refer to him, in the film, as both a great hero and a great criminal.

RITTENBERG: Right.

SIMON: Help us understand how he went between both of those.

RITTENBERG: You know, he was, in a sense, the George Washington of modern China. He pulled the nation together and started China on a path of industrial development, and so on. Criminal because after coming into power, he felt that he had the right to launch these tremendous social experiments that messed up the lives of hundreds of millions of people. He took the lid off of society; let the cauldron boil, to see what was going to happen when he, himself, did not know what the outcome was going to be.

SIMON: A few years after you joined the Chinese Communist Party, you wound up being put in solitary confinement for six years. You...

RITTENBERG: Right.

SIMON: ...were accused of being a foreign spy.

RITTENBERG: Right.

SIMON: Now that you are safely out, were you - in any way - a spy?

RITTENBERG: No, not at all. I was a complete sympathizer and participant.

SIMON: So how did it wind up that you were thrown into prison; and what does it say about that regime, that you were thrown into prison?

RITTENBERG: Well, under that sort of system, there is nobody that is ever really safe because they don't have the understanding that if each person is not secured under the law, that nobody is really secure.

SIMON: Mr. Rittenberg, I have to ask this. I mean, all those years - you never gave up your U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of China. Right?

RITTENBERG: Right.

SIMON: Although you joined the Chinese Communist Party.

RITTENBERG: Right.

SIMON: Were you a traitor to the United States?

RITTENBERG: Oh, no, not at all; on the contrary. The reason that I wore Western clothes, and kept my citizenship and so on, was I wanted it to be clear that I was representing what I consider the best traditions, and the best interests, of the American people.

SIMON: You still visit China quite a bit.

RITTENBERG: We do.

SIMON: Help us understand the China that we see now.

RITTENBERG: The China that we see now, I think, is an exclamation point followed by a question mark. Exclamation because the enormous growth in the last 30 years since the reforms and the opening. They have lifted 4- or 500 million people out of pauperdom. The question mark because, where do we go from here? Not too clear. Everyone seems to agree - that we talk to, in China - that now, there must be further reforms, particularly political reform. So how much of an impact are the new leaders going be able to make? How much are they going to be able to do, in loosening controls on the press? How much are they going to be able to do, in protecting whistleblowers from retaliation? My own guess is that there will be some incremental progress on these issues. But I think it'll be quite a long time before there's more substantial progress, and change.

SIMON: Sidney Rittenberg, the only U.S. citizen to join the Chinese Communist Party; and he is the subject of a new documentary, called "The Revolutionary." Mr. Rittenberg, thank you so much.

RITTENBERG: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.