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.