Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Interview - Sidney Rittenberg 

Sidney Rittenberg as a young man in the Army. Click photo for bio.

Very informative two-part interview of Sidney Rittenberg on the Sinica Podcast. This interview is from 2017, but still very current and relevant, because it is a retelling of history. Sometimes, a personal account like this can actually be more useful when it is played back after there is more historical context available.

I first encountered Sidney Rittenberg when I was a truck driver. I used to get books on tape and the truck stops. You could check out an audio book for a small fee at a truck stop, and the would give you a little brochure with a list of all the truck stops in America where that audio book could be returned. One of the many, many books I “read” this way was The Man Who Stayed Behind, which was Rittenberg’s own story.

I only met Rittenberg personally on one occasion. That was when he gave a lecture at the Beijing Bookworm back in 2006. I went up after the lecture and asked him if he thought Mao had a lust for power. He said that he thought Mao was just trying to work his program. I should have pressed him on that, but I was so dumbfounded by his answer I didn’t know how to proceed. My wonderment at his response was not just because he did not take the familiar American approach and dismiss Mao as a cruel evil monster who “murdered millions of his own people.” It was because he himself had acknowledged that Mao had done wrong, and especially that Mao seemed to have changed since the Yan’an days. That power had corrupted him.

So the reason I was nonplussed was not because Rittenberg’s characterization disagreed with the common stereotype. It was because his denial of Mao’s lust for power seemed to contradict what he himself had said about Mao. Again, I should have pressed him. A good journalist would have done that. But I am not a journalist. I’m just a classroom teacher. Teachers like simple, straightforward answers that are easy to explain. But sometimes life doesn’t comply. So was Rittenberg’s answer to me self-contradictory? I’m not sure. That’s one possibility. But it could be that he just didn’t want me to get by with an oversimplified picture of a man who was more nuanced than simple-minded school teachers like myself want to believe.

As I was walking away from the meeting, I thought maybe our western view of Mao has been too monochromatic. There are two kinds of people in the world—simple people and complicated people. The best example of complicated in China is Mao. The best example of simple is Deng Xiaoping.


Part One
This is the first part of the interview. In this segment, Rittenberg discusses the corruption he saw in China that influenced him to stay behind and become part of the communist movement. One thing that is sometimes missed is that Rittenberg was a member of the American Communist Party before he even joined the army, so his decision to join the Communists in China could not have been just because of a reaction to the corruption he saw in the KMT. Nevertheless the KMT was certainly corrupt.

Rittenberg also talks about the chauvanism of the Russians. Maybe not corruption in the same way, but at least a superior attitude that did not endear them to the Americans.


Part Two

In the second segment, Rittenberg discusses his ten-year confinement. It is interesting that he barely mentions his first imprisonment of six years. He goes into that more in the book.

He says something interesting in this segment regarding the relationship between Chinese and Americans: “Russians and Chinese don’t love each other. Americans and Chinese do." That statement confirms one thing you will oberve if you read the history, which is that China and America are natural allies not natural enemies. Chen Han-seng, writing in 1919, said "We suspect the Japanese, respect the British, and love the Americans." So the posturing of the United States and China as enemies was really a function of the wariness between the Americans and the Soviet Union.

Sidney Rittenberg did not know Xi Jinping, but he knew Xi Jinping's father quite well, and had a high regard for him. For that reason, I think, he was hesitant to make any criticism of the current regime.

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Clearly Rittenberg was a man of contradictions. He was a member of the American Communist Party before he ever went to China. He is on record as being the first American American citizen to join the CCP. Yet, after he was released from prison the second time, he returned to the United States, set up a consulting business, and became quite the capitalist. As I mentioned earlier, he freely acknowledged Mao’s faults, but when pinned down about them, he became quite defensive. My puzzlement about this is partly my fault, because, as I said, I should have pursued the issue a little further when I was talking with him. This two-part interview was very informative, and I recommend it, but you need to be aware that these are two left-wing Americans questioning a socialist, so, you know, you’re probably not going to see the kinds of questions I should have asked him, although I must say, to their credit, that they did bring up his participation in the Anti-Rightest campaign.

But there was something about Sidney Rittenberg that really drew me. He had a warm, engaging personality and a firm handshake. For all the years he spent in China, when you meet him he is really quite American. So his idea of starting a consulting business was pure genius. Or maybe just the inevitable result of having nothing to do but think for ten years. He was planning how he was going to do this before he was released. He doesn't say much about it in this two part interview, but if I remember correctly, it was in his 2006 lecture that he talked about hearing Jiang Qing being brought into the prison. She was yelling and carrying on, you know, and Rittenberg thought, “If she is coming in, I am coming out.” He was right. Shortly after that, he was released.

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The Man Who Stayed BehindSidney Rittenberg's personal narrative, written with Amanda Bennet. This is the book I listened to on tape when I was a truck driver.
After The Bitter Comes The SweetThis is a review of his wife's book. She deserves attention in her own right, because it was her personal bravery and unwavering loyalty that was really Rittenberg's hope during the events surrounding his second imprisonment, and, of course, after his release.


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