Sidney Rittenberg greets me with a faint, friendly voice in the lobby of his condo building in Bellevue, Washington. Ninety-three years old, wearing a striped blue polo shirt and khaki cargo pants, he walks slowly but appears remarkably healthy for his age.
If you didn't know his background, Rittenberg would come across as just another nonagenarian retiree in the Pacific Northwest. But he was the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party.
Once a U.S. Army linguist serving in China in the 1940s, he stayed behind after his enlistment ended, married twice, became a leader in the Cultural Revolution and spent 16 years in solitary confinement — and was once imprisoned because Joseph Stalin thought he was a spy.
Disillusioned and returning to America with his family, he started a new life and became a respected academic.
In a sweeping interview, Rittenberg talked about his life, what drew him to the revolutionary movement, and why he became disillusioned with it. Thanks to his unique experiences, he probably knows China better than any American alive today.
Rittenberg and his wife, Yulin, recently sold their home on Fox Island in Pugent Sound and moved into this condo. They've had a little time to decorate, and the home is packed with boxes. Chinese artwork and photos fill the hallways.
"We're trying to downsize right now," Rittenberg says.
Sunlight shines through large windows overlooking a scenic view of downtown Bellevue, with a glimpse of Lake Washington glistening in the distance.
"The view is what sold us on this place." He introduces me to Yulin, who is unpacking a box. She offers us both tea. "Sit wherever you'll be comfortable," Rittenberg tells me. I take a seat on the couch in the living room. He gets comfortable in his rocking chair across from me.
As we sit and drink tea, his iPad sits on the coffee table between us, which he uses to keep up with current events. The years may have slowed him down physically, but not mentally. I tell him his experience with Chinese history is particularly unique.
"I wouldn't recommend most of it," he replies.
Rittenberg as a G.I. in uniform at Stanford University. | (Sidney Ritttenberg/Courtesy War Is Boring)
Into the East
Rittenberg was born to a middle class Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina. His involvement in political activism began there — in the Jim Crow South. "When I was 13 or 14, I witnessed some terrible police brutality against a young black guy," he recalls.
One night he witnessed a drunk white man attacking a black man, and ran to get the police. When the cops arrived on the scene, they attacked the black man on the ground instead of his white attacker. Later, the young Rittenberg asked his aunt about it, wanting to know how the justice system could allow what he'd seen.
"She told me there was no such thing as justice, that you only get as much justice as you can pay for," he says, which shocked him. "I'd grown up on stories where good always triumphed … I believed there had to be justice."
Rittenberg turned down a scholarship to Princeton and studied philosophy at the University of North Carolina. Moved by the conditions of local mill workers, he spent much of his early adulthood as a Southern labor and civil rights activist.
But after the outbreak of World War II, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Stanford's Army Far Eastern Language and Area School to learn Japanese. When he arrived, he chose to learn Chinese instead — believing that learning Japanese would mean serving in the lengthy post-war occupation.
He wanted to return to the United States — and his labor activism — as soon as he possibly could. He thought China would be a nice short adventure. He wouldn't return to America for more than three decades.
After his training and a journey across the Pacific, he and several linguists flew over "the Hump" from India to Kunming, China. Their assignment — work with the American-allied Kuomintang government and assist with the post-war civil administration.
China was indeed a beautiful country and a new adventure. But the stench of hunger, poverty, and corruption dampened the young southerner's enthusiasm. Soon after he and his fellow troops arrived, they met a band of Kuomintang troops who offered to get them some female companionship.
"They told us that for a dollar, they would go to a nearby village and bring back Chinese girls that they could guarantee would be virgins," Rittenberg says. "For one U.S. dollar, they would just grab some girl — everyone knew about it but nobody did anything to stop it."
Officials hoarded food, money, and supplies while peasants starved and toiled. It was common to see corpses rotting along the roadside. Officials casually joked to him and the other Americans about robbing and torturing people.
One of the worst experiences was his investigation into the death of a 12-year-old Chinese girl named Li Muxian. A drunk American sergeant ran her down after a night of partying.
The G.I. had picked up a dancing girl at a club the night before, and woke up to find himself AWOL with a splitting headache. He took a few shots of whiskey and drove back to base. He saw Li by the road and thought it would be funny to scare her.
"I said to myself I'm going to see how close I can get to that little slopey girl and goddamn if I didn't run her over," the sergeant said in his deposition.
Investigators sent Rittenberg to interview witnesses, including the girl's father. "Our life is nothing," the father said. "It is nothing but eating bitterness. She was all we had. We were hoping she would have something better."
In his report, Rittenberg recommended the Army provide the highest possible compensation, but the assistant claims officer reduced it to $26. Rittenberg was mortified. He told the officer that the Army had reimbursed a villager $150 for a horse not long before.
The officer told him that the estimate was based on burial costs and what a person added to family income. A small child earned no income and needed a just a small coffin, the officer reasoned. A horse has a price tag — a human life doesn't.
Rittenberg delivered the $26 to the girl's father, feeling disgusted. Later that day, the man arrived in his office. The peasant had brought $6 back. The American was confused.
The American linguist realized the man saw him as part of the corrupt Chinese bureaucracy. The peasant felt obligated to give a kickback to every official who helped him receive the meager compensation. Rittenberg refused to take the money, and sent the man on his way.
The experience haunted him for years.
Mao Zedong signs Sidney Rittenberg’s copy of The Little Red Book. | (Sidney Ritttenberg/Courtesy War Is Boring)
It was in Southwest China that Rittenberg began reading local newspapers — including underground newspapers glorifying the exploits of communist guerrillas in the north.
Many newsstands carried these papers secretly, and the locals treated the guerrillas like folk heroes. "They seemed to be practicing honest government, and government that was somewhat democratic," he says.
Around the same time, Rittenberg befriended several communists. They shared meals, drank together, and listened to music. They told him stories about underground revolutionary activities in Shanghai. He requested a transfer to Shanghai for the remainder of his enlistment. His superior officers pulled some strings … and he was on his way.
Shanghai was a bustling international hub. "It was a chamber of horrors to me," Rittenberg says. It was a decadent town — everything frightening about the corruption in Southwest China was amplified in this port city.
"Nanking Road, which was the main stretch, was always crowded with people," he says. "Most of them were hookers and their pimps."
The opulence of the nightclubs clashed with the abject poverty and starvation on the streets. "You could hardly go anywhere without running into at least one body on the street."
One morning, he opened the front door of his military lodging and found a corpse. "He was just sitting there, he'd frozen to death the night before," he recalls.
He asked a Chinese policeman why nobody did anything about the bodies. The cop explained to him that anyone who touched them would become responsible for the burial costs — so everyone would ignore it.
He took on a freelance assignment for an American press outlet investigating Shanghai's prostitution rackets. He learned that most of the prostitutes were sold to brothels from struggling rural families.
"A lot of them were just children," he reflected with a hint of sadness.
Shanghai was bad. But it wasn't all bad. Rittenberg met Soong Qingling, widow of the revolutionary Sun Yatsen. Both communists and nationalists revere Sun as the father of modern China, and Madame Soong was a power in her own right.
"She was a very handsome lady with a lot of poise and presence," Rittenberg recalls. She introduced him to pro-democracy activists and artists in the city. Soong herself was a leftist sympathizer, and joined the communists after they took power a few years later.
Following his discharge from the Army, she became one of Rittenberg's mentors and helped him stay in China. He went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where he accounted for aid meant to alleviate famine.
But as he traveled through the country, he witnessed more corruption and more abuse — even by fellow U.N. employees.
Unsurprisingly, these associations were often corrupt. "They would put it in their back pocket," he explains. "They'd sell it for profit, exporting to places like Manila or Singapore. We would often end up buying back our own relief agency's flour."
The scale of corruption, in Rittenberg's view, had a lot to do with driving people into the communist movement. The nationalists hoarded American aid and centralized their power in the cities, while the communists won popular support in the countryside.
At one point, he visited a town called Fresh Flower Village, where communists and nationalists were negotiating under the eyes of American officers. The nationalists had blocked aid to the communist-held village.
U.S. Gen. George C. Marshall — America's top Army officer during World War II — was in China brokering the negotiations. He ordered the nationalists to end the blockade.
However, an American general told Rittenberg that when the Americans left, the nationalists would return and wipe out the village. It flew in the face of the stated U.S. policy of working to form a coalition government between the two factions.
The general's attitude disturbed him. A U.S. Army colonel took over the negotiations, and Rittenberg didn't believe he knew of the scheme. But the American aid worker became increasingly distrustful of official statements.
He believed the U.S. government was lying to both the American and Chinese people — and acted in a way he considered un-American.
Mao Zedong, at center, and Zhou Enlai at left, in the communist stronghold city of Yan’an. | (Public domain/Courtesy War Is Boring)
Unable to handle the corruption, Rittenberg left his job at UNRRA in the fall of 1946. He wasn't the only one. The Kuomintang's excesses led increasing numbers of Americans in China to sympathize with the communists. "But probably not to the extent that I did."
Frustrated that he didn't seem to be accomplishing anything, he considered returning to South Carolina. But Soong and other Chinese friends urged him to stay. Eventually, he journeyed north to Yan'an, the communists' mountainous stronghold.
The communists had been entrenched in Yan'an since the mid-1930s. Several years before, nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek purged communists from the Kuomintang, beginning a long and slow-burning civil war. The communists' Long March — a lengthy northward trek to escape the nationalist army — ended in Yan'an, where they established a de facto capital.
Yan'an was a very small town. The communists lived in caves and simple dwellings — which made it easy to mingle. If someone wanted to talk to Mao, all they had to do was knock on a door and request a meeting.
"That's what changed drastically when they took power and went to the cities," Rittenberg says.
He met Mao on his first day in the town. Mao was as a charismatic leader, always quick with a joke — and his jokes were funny.
More importantly, Mao had a knack for making everyone around him feel like they brought something important to the table. "He was one of the best listeners I've ever met," Rittenberg adds.
One day, Mao asked him if he'd be willing to stop by his home and talk to him about America. Rittenberg asked the revolutionary what he wanted to know. "Everything," Mao replied.
"[America] was the only foreign country he was interested in," Rittenberg says.
Mao was also suspicious of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin — and he hoped the communists could seek a relationship with the United States so they wouldn't have to rely on the Soviets.
The Soviets were fellow communists, to be sure. But they typically condescended to the Chinese — and expected them to comply with their instructions without argument. Mao, who had nationalist sensibilities, found these attitudes insulting.
Rittenberg became enamored with the communists' simple lifestyles. They valued discipline and thriftiness — a stark contrast to the opulence among Kuomintang elites in Shanghai.
Curious enough, there was a U.S. Military Mission in Yan'an which frequently screened American movies — he often went there with his new friends. The communists still weren't officially regarded as enemies by the United States, and the soldiers were to act as liaisons.
Most of the officers at the mission took a quick liking to the South Carolinian. But the colonel in charge of the mission despised reds — and especially hated Rittenberg. When the officer invited all the Americans in Yan'an to a Thanksgiving dinner, he made a point of excluding Rittenberg, calling him a traitor.
The colonel's subordinates protested, particularly a Texan oilman turned major who frequently socialized with Rittenberg. The Chinese communist leadership intervened, telling the colonel that he was using one of their buildings to host the dinner.
It would be all the Americans or none of them.
Mao gives a tour of Yan’an to a delegation of American and Kuomintang officials led by diplomat Patrick Hurley. | (China Daily/Courtesy War Is Boring)
Picking a side
In the summer of 1946, tensions between the nationalists and the communists reignited into open war. Rittenberg stayed, produced English language propaganda broadcasts for the communists' radio service, and even married a fellow party member.
On two occasions, he acted as Mao's interpreter in dealings with the U.S. government. His message to the Americans was simple — that the nationalists were going to lose the war.
But Mao and Rittenberg stressed that they wanted to have normal diplomatic ties with the United States. "We told them China did not want to be unilaterally dependent on the Soviet Union," he says.
Rittenberg explains that Mao wanted to rebuild China with American loans rather than Soviet ones. He believed America could offer more — and he didn't want China to become beholden to Stalin. But American officials thought it was a ruse.
"As far as they were concerned, a communist is a communist is a communist."
Rittenberg believes that American officials' perception of communism as monolithic led to major miscalculations throughout the Cold War. The United States had a golden opportunity to exploit the factionalization of communist governments and movements — and failed to take it.
Instead, the Americans' refusal to negotiate sent the Chinese communists down the path of not just closer ties with Stalin's Russia, but toward Stalinist ideas and governance. "History could have been very, very different."
Ultimately, the People's Liberation Army was victorious, and in 1949, Mao proclaimed the beginning of the People's Republic of China. "I didn't think they would win that fast," Rittenberg says. "I just didn't believe it."
Though he admired the courage of the guerrillas, he doubted that the ragtag fighters could crush the nationalists by military means. "I'd spent time with Chiang Kai-shek's elite troops," he says. "This army is going to beat that army?"
But the Kuomintang's poor leadership and corruption hampered their effectiveness. The elite troops only made up a small portion of an army that largely consisted of half-starved conscripts. Nationalist officers — essentially warlords — hoarded equipment and aid. It was common for critical supplies to never make it into the field.
Disillusioned nationalist troops deserted or defected to the communists, who rallied the peasantry and tore down the nationalist government in one of the most successful insurgencies in history. But it was also bloody — both sides killed civilians and millions died.
Not long after the victory, Soviet intelligence identified Rittenberg and other Westerners as spies. He long believed that it was a Soviet attempt to root out people Stalin saw as a threat. In 2015 — just a few months ago — he received information that confirmed it. Rittenberg says a Russian academic going through Soviet archives found communications related to his arrest.
Stalin, suspicious of the Chinese communists, tasked Russian doctors volunteering in Yan'an to report anything suspicious — he believed there were spies among them leaking information to the Allied governments. The doctors mentioned Rittenberg and insisted he had to be a spy.
Their sole evidence was that his Chinese was too good for a man who'd spent just one year studying it at Stanford. "They said it was impossible for me to speak Chinese so well after just one year," Rittenberg says.
The Russian doctors were also suspicious of Lebanese-American physician George Hatem — a communist sympathizer living in Yan'an since the 1930s. Stalin sent Mao a cable accusing the Americans of spying.
Mao expressed doubts, telling Stalin that Hatem and Rittenberg had been loyal for years. Stalin responded with a cable insisting that the Soviet intelligence had no doubt of Rittenberg's guilt, and demanded his arrest. "I actually have a copy of that cable now," he chuckles. "Imagine him scared of little old me."
Mao relented and ordered the American's arrest. Rittenberg's friends denounced him. The authorities attacked his moral character — bringing up a one night stand he'd had with a young Chinese woman early into his stay at Yan'an.
His wife left him, and Rittenberg ended up in solitary confinement and languished there for six years. He was released in 1955, just after Stalin's death. But the imprisonment did little to dampen his commitment to the cause. If anything, he was more zealous.
"I was so happy to be welcomed back," he says. "I wanted to prove to them that I was a loyal communist."
Rittenberg went back to work as a propagandist. What helped is that the country improved since his time in prison — and that poverty seemed to be on the decline. "I believed that we were making a better world, that this was the future."
Rittenberg speaks to a crowd in Tiananmen Square during the Cultural Revolution. | (Sidney Ritttenberg/Courtesy War Is Boring)
The new revolution
The revolution and its leaders had changed, too. Mao was no longer the mountain guerrilla of Yan'an. The Communist Party had transformed into an urban leadership overseeing the whole country.
Those leaders tasked Rittenberg with documenting government projects … as well as scrutinizing those the party deemed counter-revolutionary. "Party discipline was everything," he explains. "If you understood the rules, you obeyed them. If you didn't, you still obeyed them. You'd learn by doing."
Rittenberg investigated "rightists" and people with "bad" backgrounds. If the party labeled an individual as counter-revolutionary, the government often sent that person to Manchuria for "reeducation" by way of hard labor.
"At the time I thought it was totally right," Rittenberg recalls. "I'd just gotten out of prison and … I was 120 percent loyal to the party,"
He reasoned that he'd endured imprisonment for the good of the party, so anyone else going to prison should be grateful for the opportunity to reform themselves for the greater good. "I truly felt we were building a better world, and those people were getting in the way," he says.
"But of course, it was terribly wrong."
It was during this period that he met and married Yulin, the love of his life. They had several children together and began to build a family. It seemed as though the better world he had long dreamed of was forming in front of his eyes.
Mao pressed ahead with his ambitious Great Leap Forward modernization campaign. Intending to radically transform China into an industrial superpower, the regime prohibited peasants from owning land and redirected millions of people into steel production.
The state requisitioned grain and funneled it into the cities, leaving the peasants who stayed behind to starve as a historic drought choked the fields. Thirty-six million people died in the ensuing famine. This was the deadliest mass famine in the 20th century.
By the early 1960s, the Chinese government was investigating the Great Leap Forward's failures. Several senior party leaders openly criticized Mao, who responded by purging and arresting many of his harshest critics.
Embattled and increasingly criticized, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He reached out to the youth, telling them that party officials were exploiting them — and that the bourgeoisie had hijacked the revolution.
These youths later formed the militant Red Guards — a paramilitary social movement of students, farmers, and soldiers. Mao and his followers called on them to destroy the "four olds" — old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.
"There were young people in the streets sounding like Patrick Henry," Rittenberg recalls. Mao encouraged the youth to express their hopes and thoughts freely. The American was enthusiastic. "I thought 'this was what it was supposed to be about,'" he says. "We should have been moving toward a model that was more — not less — democratic."
Mao ordered the police and army not to interfere. Rittenberg and other revolutionaries believed they were going to finally bring China equality and democracy. "There was celebrating every night, it was like a constant holiday."
Rittenberg used his platform at China Radio International to stoke the revolution. As an American who spoke fluent Chinese and as a member of the Yan'an generation of revolutionaries, he became an overnight celebrity. But unlike many other Yan'an veterans, he remained a zealot for the cause — without fully understanding the role he played.
"I didn't pay close attention to Mao's words," Rittenberg reflects. Ultimately, the revolution had ulterior motives which he didn't recognize at the time. Particularly, he ignored the part of Mao's proclamation that the final goal was "the total dictatorship of proletariat."
"Mao used the Cultural Revolution to go after the bureaucrats and anyone else he saw as his enemy, even though most of them weren't really his enemies to begin with," Rittenberg says. "He became paranoid."
The Red Guards ransacked and vandalized ancient temples and destroyed thousand-year-old works of art. In response, Zhou ordered the army to protect historic sites in Beijing — but many others around the country remained undefended.
The Red Guards' campaign expanded. The movement denounced civil war and World War II veterans in the press and on the street. Targets included close friends of Rittenberg such as Madame Soong and war hero Zhu De. Students accused teachers and other authority figures of being counter-revolutionaries. Members of the movement accused each other.
Rittenberg recounted a high school Red Guards unit that would kidnap rival students and record their screams as they tortured them. "They would play it to harden their troops for the class struggle," he explains.
He added that this faction was particularly sadistic and that most Red Guards didn't sink to those depths. Nevertheless, the movement subjected thousands of intellectuals and average people to humiliation and abuse. "There was great cruelty and suffering," Rittenberg says.
By September 1967, targets of the revolution expanded to include foreigners. He even participated in condemning some of his fellow foreigners. But then members of the Red Guards turned on him — putting up a pamphlet titled, "How an American seized Red Power at Radio China International," at the radio station.
Authorities arrested him in February 1968 along with several other foreigners. He returned to prison. "I'd been through it once before," he muses. "So I knew what I was in for."
Soldiers took him from Yulin and his children for 10 years. During this second imprisonment, he penned a new Confucian saying, "Man who climbs out on limb should listen carefully for sound of saw."
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping wears a cowboy hat during a trip to a rodeo during his first visit to America in 1979. | (Sun Yatsen University/Courtesy War Is Boring)
A free man
The Chinese government released Rittenberg in 1978, and he reunited with his family. China was now under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, a reformist leader who began the country's transition to a partially state-controlled market economy.
The American hardly recognized the new China. His first big shock was learning that his daughter was studying Esperanto — and was paying a tutor to help her. "Paying someone for services? Something like that would have been unheard of before," Rittenberg says.
But to get anything done in the new China, it wasn't enough to pay — one needed "trusted friends." Corruption was creeping back in a big way.
In 1979, Rittenberg returned to America for a short visit — and took his family with him. Now that America and China were no longer enemies, he could return home as a native son rather than as a traitor.
Shortly after arriving, he visited the State Department at the invitation of Richard Holbrooke — then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs serving under the Jimmy Carter administration.
Holbrooke said that a lot of of his predecessors probably wouldn't have invited someone like him to the State Department. "If most of your predecessors had invited me, I would have refused," Rittenberg replied.
Rittenberg wrote an essay for the New York Times for its Fourth of July edition. "They told I'd been been gone longer than Rip Van Winkle, and they wanted to know how I saw America," he says.
To be sure, the country had gone through rapid changes, politically and culturally. But his views were mixed. The positive developments were that Americans — by and large — seemed more interested in the world. The country seemed like a far less isolationist place than he remembered.
He was also impressed by advances in civil rights and economic growth. But he was shocked by the high divorce rate, the street crime of the late '70s — the U.S. violent crime rate had roughly tripled since the 1950s — as well as how disempowered many Americans he talked to seemed to feel.
He hadn't truly intended to leave China. But after returning from his trip to America, he and his family became disillusioned with Deng's policies. "I started to get a good look at the new China," he says.
In particular, Deng shut down the "Democracy Wall" near the Forbidden City where people could post political pamphlets. Deng arrested several activists who protested its removal.
"That's when we decided to move to America, and it's been happily ever after since," he says with a chuckle.
The Cultural Revolution ate a generation, and then it ate itself. The years spent denouncing intellectuals, purging schoolteachers, and fighting other communists meant little time for learning. "An entire generation missed out on their education," Rittenberg says.
Before he left China, he came across a young Chinese officer reading a copy of Mein Kampf. Rittenberg was horrified and asked the man why he would read such a thing. The officer replied that he wanted to know everything that had been kept from him.
"Before, you had the party telling you who was a good person and who was a bad person," Rittenberg says. "That's a form of corruption worse than any monetary corruption. You gave up your morals and your thoughts for the institution."
He doubts China will ever see anything like that again. "After the Cultural Revolution, people became critical," he explains. "There will never be another infallible doctrine in China."
"I had been a true Leninist," he says, which meant he believed that to establish a perfect democracy one had to first create a perfect dictatorship. But his years in China led him to believe that dictatorship only leads to dictatorship, and that Mao's ascendance to power is more than enough evidence for it.
He learned a great deal about himself. As someone born to a middle-class background — not the working class — and as a white man, he overcompensated to prove his commitment to social justice even if that meant casting aside reason. "I usually decided that it was better to be left than to be right," he says with a smirk.
"Some of my Chinese friends told me 'You forgot you were a foreigner,' and they're right — I did," Rittenberg says. "I should have never allowed myself to have power."
But his experiences didn't turn him away from China. Since returning to America, Rittenberg has been a vocal advocate for Sino-American friendship through business, education, and cultural exchanges. For many years, he and Yulin ran a consultancy firm for people looking to do business in China.
Their clients included Microsoft, Intel, Hughes Aircraft, Levi Stauss, CBS News, and evangelical leader Billy Graham. He's adamant that the two countries have far more interests in common than otherwise.
Rittenberg continues to write in both Chinese and English, and is published in both countries. He has frequently split his time between the United States and China, sometimes returning as often as eight times per year. But in his old age — and after a recent hospital visit — his family has strongly discouraged him from traveling away from his doctors.
"They've got me under house arrest," he jokes. "But hopefully I'll get to bust out soon."
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