4

An old friend of the party assesses China's new leaders

Sidney Rittenberg doesn’t know China’s new leader, Xi Jinping. But if he’s anything like his father, says Rittenberg, China’s in good hands. Rittenberg and Xi Zhongxun were close friends in the 1940s when the Chinese communist party was in its infancy.

"He took me a number of times with him traveling in the countryside among the villages and he knew whose baby was sick and whose grandpa had rheumatism and so forth, and he would go to these homes and talk to them and they loved him," Rittenberg remembers. "I just hope that a lot of this rubbed off on the son."

Rittenberg doesn’t expect dramatic reforms from China’s new set of leaders. He says the revolving door between China’s big state-owned enterprises and the party will make it difficult. And that might do for the short-term.

"But if they have major economic problems as they may have if they can’t reform and livlihood starts going down, then they’re in for it," says Rittenberg, "Chinese are very obedient people, very indulgent of their leaders up to a certain point. Beyond that point they are bad business."

If there’s any American who knows this firsthand, it’s Rittenberg. He was an idealistic Chinese-speaking U.S. soldier when he first came to China in 1945, in the middle of a civil war. He became close to Mao.

Maybe too close.

In 1949, after Mao established the People’s Republic of China, Stalin told Mao that Rittenberg was a spy, and Mao promptly threw his American friend into prison. Six years later, he was released, when, as Rittenberg tells it, Stalin did the best thing of his entire life: he died. Later, Rittenberg would go back to prison for 10 more years during Mao’s cultural revolution, but between his prison stints, he held a great admiration for communist society in China.

"Nobody locked their doors," remembers Rittenberg. "The banks — there was a local bank branch on many, many corners — the door was wide open, the currency was stacked up on the table in plain sight of the door, there were no guards, they never had a bank robbery. Never."

In the 1950s, there was mass famine after Mao collectivized agriculture as part of the Great Leap Forward campaign. Rittenberg says all party members were forbidden from standing in line to buy food; they were told to let the people go first. Rittenberg remembers a colleague who broke this rule and then repented.

"They had a big meeting where she made a self-criticsm, weeping, weeping, weeping, saying I’m not a good communist, I put my children’s health above the health of the masses," says Rittenberg. "Can you imagine that today? Anything even remotely similar? Today it’s ‘get mine.’"

And that’s what seems to bother Rittenberg most about China these days: The party, he says, isn’t the same one he joined 65 years ago. He says now the party is headed by engineers who want to build a strong country and who are profiting from that vision. They’re men terrified of the possibility that political and economic reform could lead to instability. He says if they can’t overcome their fears, what they fear most will come to pass, threatening the very existence of the party he gave much of his life to.

Rob Schmitz: Sidney Rittenberg doesn’t know China’s new leader, Xi Jinping. But if he’s anything like his father, says Rittenberg, China’s in good hands. Rittenberg and Xi Zhongxun were close friends in the 1940s when the Chinese communist party was in its infancy.

Sidney Rittenberg: He took me a number of times with him traveling in the countryside among the villages and he knew whose baby was sick and whose grandpa had rheumatism and so forth, and he would go to these homes and talk to them and they loved him. I just hope that a lot of this rubbed off on the son.

Rittenberg doesn’t expect dramatic reforms from China’s new set of leaders. He says the revolving door between China’s big state-owned enterprises and the party will make it difficult. And that might do for the short-term...

Sidney Rittenberg: But if they have major economic problems as they may have if they can’t reform, and livlihood starts going down, then they’re in for it. Chinese are very obedient people, very indulgent of their leaders up to a certain point. Beyond that point they are bad business!

 If there’s any American who knows this firsthand, it’s Rittenberg. He was an idealistic Chinese-speaking US soldier when he first came to China in 1945, in the middle of a civil war. He became close to Mao. -Maybe too close.

In 1949, after Mao established the People’s Republic of China, Stalin told Mao that Rittenberg was a spy, and Mao promptly threw his American friend into prison. Six years later, he was released, when, as Rittenberg tells it, Stalin did the best thing of his entire life: he died. Later, Rittenberg would go back to prison for ten more years during Mao’s cultural revolution, but between his prison stints, he held a great admiration for communist society in China.

Sidney Rittenberg: Nobody locked their doors. The banks—there was a local bank branch on many, many corners—the door was wide open, the currency was stacked up on the table in plain sight of the door, there were no guards, they never had a bank robbery. Never.

In the 1950s there was mass famine after Mao collectivized agriculture as part of the Great Leap Forward campaign. Rittenberg says all party members were forbidden from standing in line to buy food; they were told to let the people go first. Rittenberg remembers a colleague who broke this rule and then repented.

Sidney Rittenberg: They had a big meeting where she made a self-criticsm, weeping, weeping, weeping, saying I’m not a good communist, I put my children’s health above the health of the masses. Can you imagine that today? Anything even remotely similar? Today it’s ‘get mine’.

And that’s what seems to bother Rittenberg most about China these days: The party, he says, isn’t the same one he joined 65 years ago. He says now the party is headed by engineers who want to build a strong country and who are profiting from that vision. They’re men terrified of the possibility that political and economic reform could lead to instability. He says if they can’t overcome their fears, what they fear most will come to pass, threatening the very existence of the party he gave much of his life to.

 Reporting from Beijing, I’m Rob Schmitz, for Marketplace.

 

 

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
Log in to post4 Comments

You guys (in the comments below) have no idea what you're talking about.

Is Mao (and the communist party after Mao) to blame for the famine-induced deaths of thousands or even millions of Chinese and non-Chinese people in the past 70 years? Absolutely. Do you think Sidney Rittenberg has anything to do with that? Get a little educated. Read his biography:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Man-Who-Stayed-Behind/dp/0822326671/ref=sr_1_1...

As a former student of Professor Rittenberg in the 90's, I can definitively say that he is a man of integrity that believed in the populist ideals of communism and what it represented in it's earliest days. He believed in the potential of a political party that rescued the millions of Chinese that were dying at the hands of the Japanese and the ROC (through starvation and as pawns as the ROC retreated) at the time. Professor Rittenberg believed in the promise of what the Chinese communist party could have become, and thought he had the opportunity to influence that outcome to help the people of China who he saw suffering every day in his role as an American soldier and translator.

This man you brand as evil was tortured in a communist party prison in ways that would surely have broken most of us. All he had to say was that he was a reactionary, go to a re-indoctrination camp and it would all be over. Instead he was forced to stare at the sun, deprived of food and water and subjected to psychological torture on a daily basis. He never admitted he was anything more than a principled man, and was eventually released. After he was imprisoned, he no longer had the influence to change the course of events in China. (if he ever really did)

Was he infallible? No. Would I have chosen the same path as he? No. Do I believe in the communist brand? No. Do I believe that there were evil men in the Communist Party? Yes. That does not diminish my respect for this man who has lived history and knows of what he speaks. He understands the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people in a way that we will never understand, which, I believe, is why he was interviewed here.

Only close-minded fools like Mao and Stalin think of the world in absolutes, and you sirs, can join the party. Learn a bit more about your subject than 5 soundbites on a three minute story before you speak out of turn.

Was Marketplace just too clueless or too balless to ask this guy: "So, what was it like to hang with the most murderous guys in the history of the planet?"? Would you be so sympathetic to an "I-was-there" history who stated that Goebbels wasn't so bad after you got a couple of beers in him? No one, but no one, who wasn't of the highest ideological purity got that close to the top ChiCom leadership. He bought hook, line, & sinker into levels of human death rivaled only by Stalin & the Nazis. This man is evil, and if there is any divine justice in the next world may he experience the pain he assented to causing in this one.

I think China would have been better off without Mao. That's what really matters. The communists set China back 30 years in their existence. 30 years wasted and millions of lives wasted. I'm reading this story on BBC on "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and I can't help but think how Chinese Communist survives only by avoiding this type of mistake. How "wise" Deng is for covering up Mao's crimes against the Chinese people.

"Nobody locked their doors,"
Yes, because all the criminals were in the Party. The Chinese Communist Party is responsible for at 50 million murders and this man was a major player that Party?

I don't care how interesting this guy is, he is a bad guy, undeserving of the positive light in which your story portrays him.

With Generous Support From...