Sidney Rittenberg, an American soldier-linguist who stayed in China for 35 years after World War II as an adviser and political prisoner of the Communist Revolution, and later made millions as a counselor of Western capitalists exploiting booming Chinese markets, died Saturday in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 98.
The family confirmed the death in a statement.
In a saga of Kafkaesque twists, Rittenberg was a dedicated aide to Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai as a party propagandist known across China by his Mandarin name, Li Dunbai — the mysterious foreigner in Mao’s government. But he ran afoul of Mao’s suspicions, offended Mao’s wife and spent 16 years in prison, falsely accused of espionage and counterrevolutionary plotting.
In the United States after his release, he used his extensive knowledge and contacts in China to build his own capitalist empire, advising corporate leaders, including Bill Gates of Microsoft and computer magnate Michael Dell, on how to cash in on China’s vast growing economy. Still welcome in China, he took entrepreneurs on guided tours, introducing them to the country’s movers and shakers.
“His compelling tale can perhaps best be understood as a story, writ small, of modern-day China itself,” author Gary Rivlin wrote in The New York Times in 2004. “His metamorphosis from isolated expatriate to high-priced global go-between mirrors the country’s own shift — from a closed-door Communist state to a freewheeling moneymaking society, with a new class of entrepreneurs who dream the same dreams that dance in the heads of people in places like Silicon Valley.”
The rebel scion of a prominent Charleston, South Carolina, family, Rittenberg, who joined and quit the American Communist Party, arrived in China as an Army private just as World War II ended.
He was fluent in Chinese, was committed to Marxist-Leninist ideals, was aware of the rampant corruption in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and was determined to take part in momentous historical changes.
For most of his time in China, from 1945 to 1980, he was an intimate of the Communist Party’s top leaders, whom he sought out in their mountain sanctuary, a guerrilla camp in Yan’an, by trekking 45 days on foot. He played gin rummy and argued dogma with Mao, talked for days about the United States and philosophy with Zhou, danced with Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and got to know Mao’s inner circle, including Liu Shaoqi, the third-ranking leader. They all watched Laurel and Hardy movies together.
Rittenberg joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1946. He became an English-language translator of news dispatches for the party’s propaganda arm and an interpreter of Chinese for communiqués and contacts with international leaders. He traveled with Mao and the Red Army and witnessed events of the civil war that led to the Communist victory in 1949 and to the formation of Mao’s Beijing government, the People’s Republic of China.
Despite his growing status, Rittenberg was incarcerated twice on trumped-up charges. After the Communists took power in China, Soviet leader Josef Stalin charged in a communiqué to Mao that Rittenberg was a secret American agent sent to undermine the revolution. Without trial, he was held for six years in solitary confinement.
Cleared of the bogus spy charges and released in 1955, he resumed his status in privileged upper echelons of the party. He was named to a high post in China’s Broadcast Administration and later became a director of Radio Beijing, which regularly denounced the United States. He also wrote for the controlled New China News Agency and was a liaison to foreign journalists and dignitaries. He sometimes broadcast propaganda himself, anonymously in English with a soft South Carolina drawl.
He was well paid and lived with his third wife, Wang Yulin, and their three daughters and son in a Beijing suite luxurious even by Western standards, filled with priceless Ming dynasty antiques. (He had previously been married to an American who divorced him when he left for China, and to Wei Lin, a Chinese state radio announcer who, as a gesture of solidarity with the party, divorced him after he was accused of espionage.)
He is survived by his wife and children, Xiaoqin (Jenny), Xiaodong (Toni), Xiaoxiang (Sunny) and Xiaoming (Sidney Jr.), and four grandchildren.
Rittenberg was an avid propagandist during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a campaign from 1958 to 1961 to transform China from an agrarian economy to a collectivized, industrialized society. The campaign, which banned private farming and enforced edicts with indoctrination and forced labor, was a disaster, causing widespread famine and tens of millions of deaths.
He was even more directly involved in the early stages of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a decadelong purge of “bourgeois” intellectuals, party officials and others suspected of anti-Maoist thought. Starting in 1966, thousands of young Red Guards persecuted millions with imprisonment, torture, public humiliation and property seizures in struggles to create a Maoist cult of personality.
Rittenberg joined the Red Guards in denouncing what they called “establishment” bureaucrats and haranguing the masses. His speeches and news conferences were published in the Red Guard newspapers. One famous picture from the era shows Mao autographing Rittenberg’s copy of his “Little Red Book” of sayings. Another shows Rittenberg on a speaker’s platform, holding the book up and exhorting crowds in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to defend Mao’s thoughts.
Soon after the pictures were taken, Rittenberg was himself denounced by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, ostensibly for attending a secret meeting to plot the government’s overthrow. In 1968, he was imprisoned, again without a hearing, this time for a decade in solitary confinement in a dark cell 7 paces long and 3 1/2 paces wide. His wife was sent to a labor camp, his children to live with relatives.
During Rittenberg’s second imprisonment, the Cultural Revolution left the country in chaos, Mao’s health began to fail and the so-called Gang of Four — Mao’s wife and three other leaders — assumed greater power. China’s Communist Party became what Rittenberg called a “shadow” of its old self.
“The spirit was gone, the party became a mere machine for exercising power over the government and the people,” Rittenberg told the Financial Times in 2012. “Official corruption and careerism, rare before the Cultural Revolution, now become prevalent and systemic.”
Released in 1977 after Mao died and Jiang Qing was arrested, Rittenberg emerged from prison disillusioned with Communism. He returned to the United States in 1979 for a three-month visit that he portrayed as a “vacation,” to see relatives, to lecture and, apparently, to quietly discuss his repatriation with the Carter administration. He returned to China, his status undiminished, and was named to an important academic post.
But he quickly left China again for what he said would be a five-month visit to America. His wife went with him, and it turned out to be a permanent move, with the children joining them later and assuming American names and citizenship. He had kept his own U.S. citizenship, and he soon settled into a new life.
His return was widely publicized. He went on television and radio talk shows, lectured and was featured in newspapers and magazines.
His welcome by U.S. officials raised suspicions that he had been a CIA agent all along, but he scoffed at the idea, and no proof was ever offered. He was still welcome in China, however, and he and his wife for several years made a living conducting tours of China for Americans.
Then, in a breakthrough, the chairman of ComputerLand hired Rittenberg to help him establish ties to a visiting high-level delegation of Chinese business leaders, and to provide guidance for marketing American products and services in China. He knew many Chinese business and government leaders, and understood the bureaucracy well enough to advise clients about traps and shortcuts.
He founded Rittenberg & Associates, a consulting firm for American companies doing business in China. He joined the Chinese studies faculty at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and wrote about China’s markets for the Strategic News Service, a weekly business digest. Gates and Dell were readers.
Over the years, his services were engaged by hundreds of venture capitalists and American companies, including Microsoft, Intel, Prudential Insurance, Polaroid and Levi Strauss. He made a half-dozen business trips to China annually and kept an apartment in Beijing.
“He may have been a card-carrying Communist, but he’s also very much a capitalist,” David Shrigley, a former Intel executive, told The Times in 2004. He said Rittenberg helped Intel open a semiconductor plant in China in the 1990s. “He understands what’s really going on in a very nuanced way that proved tremendously valuable to us.”
A modernizing China wanted the business, and officials commended Americans for hiring what they called friends of the People’s Republic as advisers. And it was a windfall for the Rittenbergs, who bought a home on Fox Island, Washington, overlooking Puget Sound, a condo in Bellevue, Washington, and a home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mike Wallace of CBS and the Rev. Billy Graham were among their friends.
In a reflective interview with the Financial Times in 2013, Rittenberg voiced regret over his support for Mao, calling him “a great historic leader and a great historic criminal,” and expressing dismay over his own role in the Cultural Revolution.
“I took part in victimizing innocent, good people,” he said. “It was institutionalized bullying and scapegoating, and I couldn’t see it because everything about the regime was good for me and I felt I was part of a movement for human progress, freedom and happiness. I wasn’t feeling what happened to other people. It’s a kind of corruption, exactly the kind of corruption that ruins the whole thing.”
Sidney Rittenberg was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on Aug. 14, 1921. His father, Sidney, was president of the Charleston City Council and his grandfather had been a prominent South Carolina legislator. His mother was the daughter of a Russian immigrant. After graduating from the Porter Military Academy in Charleston in 1937, he turned down a scholarship to Princeton to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in philosophy and graduated in 1941.
He joined the American Communist Party in 1940, drawn by its platform of free speech, racial equality and roots in the labor movement. Without giving up his Communist ideals, he acceded to a party request and resigned in 1942 when he was drafted by the Army in World War II.
Recognizing his talent for languages — he had learned French and Latin in prep school and excelled in German at Chapel Hill — the Army sent him to its language school at Stanford University. He was fluent in Chinese by 1945, when he arrived in Kunming, China, as a linguist for the Judge Advocate General.
Discharged in 1946, he joined a U.N. relief agency in Shanghai, where he met Communists who urged him to join their movement. His trek to Yan’an, and his long association with Mao, ensued.
His life was chronicled in a documentary, “The Revolutionary” (2012), by Irv Drasnin, Don Sellers and Lucy Ostrander, and his memoir, “The Man Who Stayed Behind” (1993), written with Amanda Bennett, a former correspondent in China for The Wall Street Journal.
“I had been right to help those who were working for a new China,” he said in the memoir. “I had been dead wrong, however, in accepting the party as the embodiment of truth and in giving to the party uncritical and unquestioning loyalty.”