SIDNEY RITTENBERG: AN APPRECIATION



It's hard for the hard left to be right
Philip J. Cunningham


Sidney Rittenberg, whose long life was deeply intertwined with that of communist China passed away as the party was poised to celebrate 70 years of unbroken rule. That insular Hong Kong should be flaring up going through the throes of a crisis about what kind of relationship it wants with the China mainland is apt; revolution, rebellion and rejuvenation were recurring themes of Rittenberg's unusual tenure in China.
A scion of the deep South, Sidney Rittenberg was attracted to the labor movement and civil rights from a young age. He joined the American communist party, not as uncommon in the 1930's as it would be today, but academic excellence led him to be groomed by the US army as a Chinese specialist at Stanford during World War Two.

With several years of intensive language study under his belt, he arrived in a tumultuous China, which found itself on the verge of civil war shortly after the surrender of Japan. Rittenberg quit the army and found civilian work in Shanghai in 1946, at which time an invitation to visit the communist stronghold in Yanan changed his life. After an arduous trek to the “promised land,” he went “native” with an ease and alacrity that amazes observers to this day. He became a card-playing crony of Mao Zedong and a trusted foreign comrade to the legendary leaders of the revolution. He joined the CCP in its struggle against the Kuomintang and served as a translator and writer for the fledgling Xinhua News Service.
Stanley Rittenberg with Mao Zedong
Later in life, the ardent idealist and hard-knock activist had some harsh words for the ruling party of his adopted homeland, but his deep affection and respect for the Chinese people remained unwavering. If the bitter twists of his life as a cadre, about half of which was spent in prison, taught him anything, it was a recognition that the communist struggle was more about power than ideology. 

The struggle, deceptively cloaked in the utopian creed of Marx and Lenin, with significant input from Mao, and sometimes had something to do with improving the lot of the poor, but first and foremost, its reason to exist, the reason for all its twists and turns, the reason for miscarriages of justice, and a generally tone-deaf response to genuine reform was because, at its core, it was a political machine. To maintain a monopoly of power meant eliminating challengers. 
Whatever Rittenberg’s private feelings might have been about the recent rebellious outburst in Hong Kong, the details of which he might have only been dimly aware in his waning days, he had already gone on the record and was crystal clear about one thing:  Beijing would never countenance the possibility of Hong Kong leaving the fold of China. If as much as a serious semblance of seeking independence was attempted, an unrelenting crackdown was sure to follow.
The Deng Xiaoping-directed crackdown against protestors in the streets of Beijing in 1989 made it obvious to victims of previous purges, including Rittenberg, who was in the US at the time, that the CCP valued maintaining power above all else. Rittenberg’s first imprisonment on trumped-up spy charges on the eve of revolution was later revealed to have been caused by Mao’s sometimes slavish adherence to Stalin’s dubious “intelligence reports” and an unforgiving party line, while his second imprisonment was also the result of offending a power figure. He joined leftists railing against rightists but fell afoul of the leftists was jailed on spurious charges and as a rightist after he ran afoul of Mao’s fickle and imperious wife Jiang Qing at the outset of the Cultural Revolution.
Rittenberg, by his own admission, got carried away doing what he thought Mao wanted him to do and was insufficiently attentive to what this blind enthusiasm was doing to the people that Mao chose to oppose. His long years in a solitary cell at Qincheng prison gave him ample time to reflect on how he had been engaged in some of the very tactics that had been used against him.
The Communist Party’s political line has been so full of twists and turns that even founding members and legendary communists sooner or later got rocked by whiplash from sudden changes in direction, resulting in forced confessions and public humiliation, if not prison and hard labor. 

If the ultimate insiders could not avoid being so buffeted by changing tides, it is no surprise that an American, who perhaps inadvertently made up for his lack of “Chineseness” by doubling down on his communist credentials, should find politics at the top to be an utter minefield.
A partisan who was once a bombastic inciter of Red Guard excess at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg grimly noted in interviews near the end of his life that the CCP is not sentimental nor easily moved to tears: it does what it deems necessary to perpetuate its own power.
And yet through all these struggles, Sidney kept bouncing back, emerging, like so many Chinese victims of the system, free of hate and rancor and ready to play what small role he could to help transform the country he loved into a better place.
I got a better appreciation of this dynamic from working with Sidney in television commentary. Unlikely as it seems, it took an introduction from me, a part-time consultant, and a freelance commentator at CCTV to get Sidney, who had been an early core writer for Xinhua News and former head of Radio Beijing, on Chinese television after years in the broadcast wilderness. I accompanied him to CCTV where, at my suggestion, he was slated to be a guest on the English language talk show “Dialogue” hosted by Yang Rui.  

Guest protocol at the old CCTV headquarters in west Beijing was so disorganized and sloppy that an old man - and veteran of the Chinese revolution at that - had to stand outside the security gate in inclement weather for half an hour before being met by a TV news staffer and escorted inside. Once inside the news wing of building, there was nothing akin to a green room, or even a clean rest room, though I doubt Sidney, who had once trekked across wilderness to reach Yanan, camped out in caves, and evacuated the former base area with Mao and other hardened comrades under KMT fire, even noticed. The live talk show went smoothly, and after the show, anchor Yang Rui, clearly fascinated with his guest, joined us for a drink and a long evening of reminiscences about China in the old days.
Rittenberg was scheduled for another appearance at CCTV when a long, bitter letter came in suggesting that “Sidney” had no business being on Chinese TV. It was from a man also named Sidney, and apparently China wasn’t big enough for the two of them. Sidney Shapiro, an American communist who had also lived in China for decades as a media worker, never left China, unlike Rittenberg, who eventually resettled in the US. 

The long, rambling letter was full of dirt and details--about who was accused of doing what to whom during the Cultural Revolution--even citing failed romantic liaisons and the mutual fear that each man was a snitch to the other, which gave a fascinating glimpse into life at the Friendship Hotel, where all the fellow travelers were cramped together with other foreigners despite their professed love for China and the Chinese people.

The editorial staff at CCTV's “Dialogue” found the multipage missive amusing rather than alarming, and it was chalked off to an old rivalry between two aged laowai.
Sidney Rittenberg and I later found ourselves in the US facing off on a PBS program talking about changes in Chinese state TV. As a Knight fellow consulting at CCTV, I had seen “Dialogue” go from a taped program that was laboriously edited before broadcast to a live broadcast format (with a to-air delay of a few minutes, presumably to situate a kill switch, which, to my knowledge was not used). I was subsequently a frequent on-air guest and made it my personal mission to talk as freely as I could, though limitations of topic and narrative frame made the final result less freewheeling than I would have liked. Still, it was encouraging to see journalistic standards improve, to see scripted narratives unravel, and sometimes, real conversations take place. 
The range of topics that could be talked about and dissented on expanded considerably between 2000-2009. However, at some point late in Hu Jintao’s tenure, a retrograde trend set in, and all of a sudden, the political controls tightened. Ironically, the sharp decline in free speech coincided with vast international outreach, and it was about this topic that I was invited to speak about in the PBS studios in Washington DC. Sidney's input was edited into the program by phone, email and a taped link on the same topic. 

Before the program I had shared with Sidney my disappointment that after ten years of modest improvements, it was still not possible to talk about Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, or any number of important topics, and I thought the idea of opening a branch in the US (now known as CGTN) was a waste time and money if they didn’t get the editorial policy right.

Sidney agreed in private. But when he was contacted by PBS he said the new venture was a great opportunity for young Chinese to learn journalism. Afterwards, he acknowledged to me that the three T’s (Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan) couldn’t be breached, but felt that gentle pressure from the inside was better than “outing” CCTV’s illiberal editorial line. 

Keen not to let a public disagreement derail a fine friendship, Sidney suggested that our differences could be attributed to environment; I was accustomed to relatively free speech in my work as a journalist and commentator for publications in US, Japan, and Thailand. He, in contrast, had dedicated much of his life to the Chinese communist experiment, and despite immense disappointments, had his own ideas about how things worked. He stubbornly held onto his faith in China’s ability to gradually open up.
A flicker of the idealism that led Rittenberg to join the communist revolution as a young man was never entirely absent even in his later years. Bolstered by the steady support of his wife Yulin, a comrade in the best sense of the word who saw him through good times, bad times and then some, there was a light in his eyes and cautious hope in his voice that things would work out just fine in the end.  


Sidney with Yulin at a pensive moment