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.

The Discussion: 26 Comments

“A key point in improving understanding is that American opinion has to accept the impermissibility of outright conflict between the USA and China, and therefore base our attitude towards China on working out solutions, not on trying to impose changes on China or on “pivoting” military strength to areas surrounding China.” I agree with Rittenberg that it is more important to focus on working out solutions than to impose changes.

August 6, 2012 @ 12:44 pm | Comment

‘Idealist’ is an odd way of writing ‘dangerously wrong about practically everything’.

If you think that the story he paints of simply being a naive young man swept up in revolutionary fervour, one who believed that ‘vibrant democracy’ could be born through ‘struggle sessions’ (i.e., the haranguing and violent beating of one’s former friends often to the point of death), is rather hard to believe, then you are unlikely to be alone. His claim that he was deceived by Jiang Qing and thought she was speaking for Mao is reminiscent of much of the post-CR excuse-making, and we need not find it quite so convincing as people who have to use similar arguments to excuse their own actions during that time do.

It is also definitely not to his credit that he so eagerly worked for a government during a time when his fellow countrymen were being killed and wounded by guns and bombs wielded by the servants of that government and their proxies. Ms. Goldman’s interview never presses Rittenberg on this.

I have to say I am confused by the credibility that people like Mr. Rittenberg continue to have among a certain sub-set of China observers. Put simply, the facts are such that the man’s actions show him to have been either an idiot or a charlatan.

Had the Soviet Union been his destination of choice, not even Russia observers would now pay him heed since the dictatorial system he fell for so easily and served so eagerly is no longer in place there. However, since he chose China instead, and since a form of the dictatorship he loved so much is still in place there (although without the ‘morality’ it had in 1949, when it was executing land-owners by the hundreds of thousands), it seem that the Goldmans of this world believe him still to be a worthwhile subject for an interview.

August 6, 2012 @ 1:34 pm | Comment

When I read what you asked him, Richard, I wasn’t expecting him to reply like this:

‘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.’

Millions of Chinese got swept up in the euphoria of Mao, why not one American?

You may doubt him, Gil, but I remember what it was like to be a man in my early twenties. I travelled a lot then; I lived in Africa and Asia. Some of the stuff that I did, and indeed all young, impressionable people do, makes me wonder if any of us have ‘critical faculties’.

I’m ordering his book and look forward to reading it.

August 6, 2012 @ 4:53 pm | Comment

@Xilin – Except, as is pointed out by the interview, Rittenberg not in his early 20’s when most of this went down. Rittenberg was 25 when he went over to the communists, 30 in 1951, 34 in 1955, 46 in 1967. The matters he’s discussing were things that occurred to a middle-aged man, one born into a free society.

And no, I do not believe that there are people so benighted and incapable of deciding for themselves that they should not be held responsible for things that they did because they were ‘swept up in euphoria’. No country recognises, for example, that durress is an absolute defence in a murder trial, since it is believed that whatever the circumstances you should be able to see that unjust killing is wrong. Yet it is exactly this crime of unjust killing, which was conducted on a massive scale in the People’s Republic, not just in the Cultural Revolution, but in the ‘anti-rightist campaign’ and the land redistribution campaign, that this man defended and enabled.

There is a certain line of thinking that sees the crimes of communist regimes as somehow ‘less bad’ because the targets of their mass killings were entire socio-economic classes, rather than the ethnic groups targeted by more right-wing dictatorships. A certain line of thinking that sees membership of communist parties and excuse-making for them as more forgivable than membership of and excuse making for extremist organisations of other complexions.

I think this line of thinking is mis-guided and unfortunate. It misses the true motive for such behaviour – an attempt to grab naked power through organised violence, power such as one might exercise running a revolutionary group of the kind Rittenberg briefly led and enjoyed running so much. The interview mentions his attacks on Wang Guangmei, which he now ‘regrets’, but she was far from the only target of his group.

So no, I have no sympathy for Mr. Rittenberg, and am aghast to see so many people readily swallowing his excuse-making and faux-idealism.

August 6, 2012 @ 6:15 pm | Comment

If you really want to see a modern-day equivalent of the kind of sad, small individuals so lacking in any moral fibre as to do as Rittenberg did, and apparently for much the same reasons, check out the Youtube channel of the Korean Friendship Association:

These losers sell their souls to one of the worst regimes in history for reasons that are barely conceivable. Whilst they bang on about ‘Western imperialism’, their real motive appears to be free holidays, some hot air with which to inflate their egos some more, and the chance to get close to some women who cannot runaway because they’ll get shot if they try .

No doubt 50 years from now Alejandro Cao and his compadres will be claiming that they were just swept up in the idealism of the time. I hope when that happens people will not simply swallow that story whole whilst lauding him as ‘brilliant’.

August 6, 2012 @ 7:03 pm | Comment


He first went to China in his early twenties. I think this is a pretty impressionalable time for most people. By 1967 he had been in China for over twenty years, during which time I assume he had very little contact with other foreigners in China or the outside world….

I’m sure most of us have lived away from our home countries for extended periods (often with lots of contact with other foreigners and the freedom to skype and email all the time) and have noticed how much we change due to the places we live in and how much our home countries change in our absence.

So, when you say:

‘The matters he’s discussing were things that occurred to a middle-aged man, one born into a free society.’

You have to realise that he hadn’t lived in a ‘free society’ for over twenty years.

I’m not excusing anything this guy has done, I don’t think getting swept up in the euphoria of anyone is an excuse, and I do agree with you that they should be held responsible.

I’m just saying that I can see how someone could do what he has done and that I can’t say for sure what I would have done in his situation. His case raises questions about education, background, political ideology and patriotism.

Why are followers of religion encouraged to attend regular services? Perhaps because faith leaders may believe that, as individuals, a large proportion of their flocks would gradually slip and cease to strictly follow their religion? (I’m paraphrasing Dawkins)

(I know religion is not the same as politics, but often their respective followers seem strangely alike)

August 6, 2012 @ 7:26 pm | Comment

Gil, I didn’t see your last post before I uploaded mine.

Thanks for the youtube link (

I wonder if Alejandro does requests?

I’d love to here his take on ‘I’m So Ronery’.

August 6, 2012 @ 7:32 pm | Comment

Just in case anyone else should get all teary-eyed for this ‘brilliant’ man, note that:

1) He gave speeches supporting the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war.

2) He also gave speeches advocating “revolutionary violence” against authorities during the efforts to end segration in the United States, and attacking those who sought a peaceful resolution.

3) In the aftermath of the GLF his reporting from Beijing suddenly became full of details of bumper crops and widely available food in the PRC.

4) He wrote this poem:

“Chairman Mao Is the Greatest Leader of the People of the World

Mao Tse-tung,
Sage of the common man.
Giant of the revolution.
Leader of the Chinese people.
Beacon for the people of the world!
The spark that kindled the Chinese revolution
Now sets the world ablaze!”

August 6, 2012 @ 9:56 pm | Comment


I will refrain from asking him to put that bunkum on a placard hanging from his neck for his remaining days. But I’m afraid there are some states of delusion from which it would be all but impossible to return.

August 6, 2012 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

“In helping them, Rittenberg had the sense of fulfilling a historical need. China was the most populous and most ancient country in the world, and it was in the process of reinventing itself. He felt he had his ‘finger on the pulse of history.'”

A topos for our time. And a deft finger it was, nearly surgeon-like, which he wielded.

The man’s first error, one tinged by hubris: feeling up to the task.

August 6, 2012 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

We could have a lengthy debate about what constitutes an “idealist.” Were Hitler and Pol Pot idealists? Maybe, but I see Rittenberg as a different kind of idealist, one who was, as Xilin says, young and impressionable, a believer in the possibility of communism to erase class boundaries, etc. And for the first few years of communist rule I can understand why he remained an idealist. He was a hard-core believer and remained so even at the start of the Cultural Revolution, something I can’t forgive him for. During the GLF he knew the farmers were struggling as produce disappeared from the market shelves but like most Chinese in Beijing he didn’t know of the mass starvation. He was more stupid and naive than anything else, and as guilty as any of the millions of Chinese who at first embraced the CR with passion. This is why I poise the question “hypocrite or pragmatist” re. his morphing into an ueber-capitalist. I can’t condemn him the way I do Jiang Qing and others, as he was just a stupid pawn and a thoughtless believer. Like so many others he believed in what he was doing. The banality of evil?

Meanwhile, do read the book. It has great historical significance, as much as you may hate the author.

Having met him and heard him answer tough questions from the audience, I stick to my opinion that he’s brilliant. That doesn’t mean he’s right or likable. (Though he came across as extremely likable and knowledgeable.)

August 7, 2012 @ 12:54 am | Comment

Look what he says:

‘As for the ideals of communism – a future classless society of abundance, equality, world peace, and universal brotherhood – I believed in them long before I ever heard of the Communist Party.’

His ideals do have a touch of the Miss World speech about them, but, political leanings aside, these are the kind of things which I believed in as a young man.

I read an article about him ages ago and in all honesty I was amazed that a well educated American had, as I saw it, been taken in by Maoism. I think that shows that I didn’t (and still don’t) really understand how or why people seem to unquestioningly follow mass movements. It’s easy with hindsight to say that all those who bought in to Maoism were naïve. But who knows, perhaps in the future people will look back and think us idiots for slaving away for our modest salaries whilst rich execs take the lion’s share.

August 7, 2012 @ 3:49 am | Comment

@FOARP. I agree with much in your first post, but the fact that he supported Vietnamese liberation is something in his favour. The Vietnam war/The Great Patriotic War might be an arcane fact to a person of your Oasis generation….

The Occupation folk would be well advised to place a few barge poles between themselves and this old huckster.

I bet if you look up Rittenberg and Associates on the net, you will find a Shaun Rein type operation. The old boy will be there to meet and greet the well heeled before handing them over to unpaid interns with actual practical skills in negotiating investment. My cat could come up with that sort of analysis of China’s investment climate.

Any corporation which goes to this relic for advice should have its CEO and board removed at the AGM, and then prosecuted for fiscal ineptitude or something like that.

Sure, I look forward to reading his memoir, but he should have done the right thing after that and drank himself to death.

Another consultant bs artist like Kissinger.

August 7, 2012 @ 3:53 am | Comment

@KT – Indeed the Vietnam war was somewhat before my time (although I was a Radiohead fan, the Gallaghers – with the exception of Champagne Supernova which I listened to over and over – weren’t my style). Whatever your view of the war itself, there’s something about urging on a campaign directed at killing ones own people (and Aussies as well, as I recall) because you would like a communist dictatorship to be installed that sticks in my craw.

@Richard – You may be correct about the man being naive or stupid, but there’s always option C: the guy knew what he was doing all along but acted from sheer opportunism, just as he appears to have acted later. The comparison to modern-day apologists for North Korea is apposite, but another good one is to think how apologetic William Joyce might have been had he escaped and surfaced 50 years later in Buenos Aires.

August 7, 2012 @ 4:29 am | Comment

Gil, I would have guessed you were old enough to be a Shadows fan. You just sound so old, man.

Regarding Rittenberg and the US in Vietnam, some people try and transcend concepts such as nationality and patriotism (this is supposed to be core to the end goal of communism), some people just don’t care about these things. And you’re right, there is something about killing your own people, but if that something was that strong we’d never have civil wars.

August 7, 2012 @ 4:53 am | Comment

@Xilin – Say what you like, but Apache is a great track . . .

August 7, 2012 @ 5:18 am | Comment

“because the targets of their mass killings were entire socio-economic classes, rather than the ethnic groups targeted by more right-wing dictatorships”

But they rarely kill the children and babies of these ‘entire socio-economic classes’, and rarely is it written down as an aim to do away with these classes by killing them off —more the elimination of classes, which does not necessarily mean killing people belonging to a certain class.

Similarly the French Revolution resulted in the killing of many of the nobility, many of them likely innocent, but this cannot be considered equivalent to Hitler’s killings.

There was no organised mass extermination of landlords and gentry, and the justification was killing only those who owed ‘blood debts’, not simply because of their class origin per se.

That is a subtle but by no means unimportant distinction between what you term the mass killings of communist regimes and say that of say the Nazis.

There are many many descendants of landlords alive today. The vast majority were not killed. Whereas if the Nazis had achieved total political power for 60 years, in Eastern Europe, how many Jews would remain to write memoirs of their earlier sufferings, or indeed Slavs and other types deemed ‘subhuman’?

And if you talk of political killings, it happens both ways. The South Koreans executed tens of thousands of people at the same time simply for suspected leftist inclinations. The Nationalists carried out massacres in Taiwan in 1946/47 —-these killings proportionately are no less than those of what the communists are accused of.

Political killings of opponents (real or perceived), mostly adult, is of course wrong, but not something that is unique to communist regimes. If the Nationalists had won, I hardly think they would have been anymore gentle towards Chinese leftists than the South Koreans were towards theirs.

And Chiang actually directly ordered the killings of the families of his political opponents. Mao did not. So Lin Piao’s family for example are all still alive today, and were held only for a short period of time.

Ask yourself this. Who would you prefer to have a coffee with if you had no other choice?

A group of Viet Cong verterans or say Indian Maoists on the one hand, or Tom Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance and Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator on the other? Who of these would come across as the more deranged and evil?

August 7, 2012 @ 9:02 am | Comment

“ all honesty I was amazed that a well educated American had, as I saw it, been taken in by Maoism…”
Probably the same thing that makes many mainland Chinese, even after moving out and reading the information without the CCP’s heavy hand on it, still profess a love of Mao. Kinda weird, but then there’s quite a few who still think Hitler was one of the best Germans out there (yes, I know he was born in Austria, but his was a pan german vision) and that Mussolini was wildly misunderstood and should be rehabilitated…

August 7, 2012 @ 10:53 am | Comment


This is fast because I’m running out of internet time.

I have sufficiently good manners not to comment on your musical preferences. Referencing Hank Marvin doesn’t improve your ratings, however.

Your use of the term “Aussie” is insulting to put it mildly. It reeks of rah rah nationalism/chauvinism, a mental condition which I loathe and detest. A sure way of being crossed off my Xmas list. I will be posting on this issue soon, but you get a preview here. All loyal citizens of tubbyland are rejoicing in the fact that our medal quotient is around 24 on the table, and far behind both the Koreas and Kazakhstan.

Usually your posts pass the due diligence test, but you are scamming readers with your drivel on Vietnam. I suggest a bit of basic reading, and you can begin with a google read on Archimedes Patti. Then read his book. The Vietnamese/Annamese struggle began as an anti-colonial insurrection against the French. Only later did Vietnamese nationalism morph into commie doctrine, and for very realistic reasons. This is Vietnam 101. Why bother crossing all the i’s and t’s for you. So smart whatever the discussion point.

And, as for back stabbing Ozlanders who ended up in Vietnam. They were pariahs/dupes who never got laid by good looking girls or had good pot connections.

At the beginning of the 70s, the Moratoriums against conscription/Vietnam was putting 100,000 people in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, respectively. Not bad for a population of 18m at the time. People lost jobs, were hounded by the police, blah blah.

When was your last real protest, FOARP. “Gee KT, I did send the sushi back once and really embarrassed my gf”.

And don’t misrepresent my points like you did six months ago on Sinostand and Custer’s site.


August 7, 2012 @ 5:05 pm | Comment

@KT – Whatevs, Marvin is a ledge.

August 7, 2012 @ 5:39 pm | Comment

Rittenberg did walk the walk by staying in China through thick and thin (not sure he had a choice), which can’t be said for the DPRK Friendship crew or Godfree Roberts, the Hidden Harmonizers or (AFAIK) MF Cooper.

August 9, 2012 @ 1:46 am | Comment

. . . not sure he had a choice . . .

Cf. – the offer of the PRC government to pay for him to ” . . . finance whatever endeavor [he] might want to start up in America . . .”

Who knows? Maybe he wanted to go into business with his friends the Rosenbergs?

August 9, 2012 @ 3:52 am | Comment

. . . or more likely, he was worried what the view of witch-hunting organisations like HUAC might be on his activities.

August 9, 2012 @ 4:06 am | Comment

What an excuse is it that he was young? I had a moral compass in first grade. It was cowardice for a group of kids to beat up a single opponent.

August 10, 2012 @ 2:53 am | Comment

Fascinating. I think surviving through that shit alone deserves some sort of applause. I would have become suicidal if I had to relive seeing China go down the shitter like it did during the CR.

August 10, 2012 @ 3:42 am | Comment

I’ve been in China over 20 years and quite frankly the knowledge I’ve gained isn’t always relevant now, due to the pace of rapid change. I wonder if the same can be said of Sidney’s….?

August 12, 2012 @ 11:52 am | Comment

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