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An American ‘Revolutionary’ In China

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
October 20, 2012

Sidney Rittenberg went to China as an American G.I. 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 in China.

By the time Rittenberg came back to the United States, more than 30 years later, he had become the only American citizen to join the Chinese Communist Party, 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 American for corporations who 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 a nation together and started China on a path of industry development,” Rittenberg says. “[He was] 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.”

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 every really safe,” he says. “They don’t have the understanding that if each person is not secured under the law, then 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.’”

Despite China’s massive growth over the past few decades, Rittenberg says the future for 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.

How much of an impact China’s new leaders will have, he says, will partially depend on loosening controls on the press and protecting whistleblowers 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.”

After spending 35 years of his life in China, 16 of those in prison, Rittenberg and his family moved to the U.S. in 1980. He and his wife now run a consulting firm that provides assistance to businesses who work with Chinese companies, but still return to China once a year. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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