Interview with Sidney Rittenberg

Danwei has a great interview with the “man who stayed behind,” Sidney Rittenberg. His story is an improbable one. He was at exactly the right place at the right time, a Chinese speaker who believed passionately in Communism who was in China as the Japanese were defeated in 1945 and as the Communists under Mao were poised to take on the Nationalists. His skills as a native English speaker were badly needed and helped make him a darling of the party’s highest leadership, for whom he wrote propaganda. I read his memoir a few years ago and it’s a page-turner, required reading for anyone who wants a bird’s eye view of what Mao and Zhou and Jiang Qing and others were like and how they interacted before and after they came to power. I can’t imagine a more gripping book about the Communists’ rise to power.

I was lucky enough to meet Rittenberg at a lecture he gave about two years ago, and I asked him how he could have endorsed the Cultural Revolution so enthusiastically when it was obviously a cult movement celebrating Mao as a god and going against the communist doctrine of equality and a representative government that serves the people. He answered very frankly, saying he got so swept up in the excitement that he gave up his critical faculties and joined the masses in their rush into madness. It was ironic that within 14 months he would be labelled a spy and put in solitary confinement for about ten years, thanks mainly to the machinations of Jiang Qing.

The Danwei interview is tied to the release of the new documentary about Rittenberg’s life, The Revolutionary, a film I cannot wait to see.

Now, after dedicating so much of his life to creating a classless society, he lives in the US working as a well-heeled consultant, helping foreign firms get in on the action in China. Hypocrite? Pragmatist?

Read the interview. Rittenberg remains an idealist, and a brilliant one at that, and I agree with much of his analysis of today’s economic mess and the need for stimulus as opposed to austerity. His insights into what communism meant half a century ago and how it morphed into something unrecognizable after the Cultural Revolution are eye-opening. No matter what issues I may have with him and his poor judgement, I always want to hear what he has to say. It’s a great interview.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China’s sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.