Sidney Rittenberg: America's and Washington's Most Senior and Wisest China Watcher (June 10, 2015)
In recent months, U.S.-China relations have been described as “at a tipping point” and “stubbornly cool” by prominent China watchers like David Lampton and Orville Schell. Are their observations right? We’ve heard tough words from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter over China’s island constructions in the South China Sea. Is war possible between the U.S. and China? We have watched Xi Jinping become the most powerful leader since Deng and carry out policies that remind one of Mao. What kind of leader is Xi? We’ve read shocking corruption stories of China’s government officials. Why are they so corrupt? And the Communist Party, as we all know, runs a market-oriented economy, protects private property, censors media and promotes Confucianism. What exactly are they?
On these and other pressing questions, no one can better shed light for us than Sidney Rittenberg (李敦白), who knows China and the Communist Party inside out. Having lived in China for 35 years through wars and revolutions, now in his very wise 90s, he has to be the most senior China watcher in the U.S. It was an honor for me to interview this great fellow Washingtonian of ours at his Bellevue home recently. Here is the interview in its entirety, of 15 questions in three parts, shining through which are his insight, erudition, sincerity, optimism and humor, not to say his brilliant memory.
Part 1: Looking back at Yan'an, Mao's "people's demoractic dictatorship," and the once corruption-free Communist Party
Question 1: I feel a kinship with you, as both my parents joined Mao’s revolution and lived in Yan'an in the 1940s, just as you did. Do you miss the place in any way, as a young, enthusiastic and popular international revolutionary fighter if not a prisoner?
Sidney Rittenberg: I wouldn’t say I miss it but I love to think of Yan'an, something with beautiful memories in my mind, and I think about it from time to time. But when we went back there to look about six or seven years ago, I was very disappointed, really, because in my view they ruined the place instead of preserving it and building a new city outside of it, they drowned it in the city, you could hardly see the old sites. Also the signs that tell you about the history where Mao Zedong lived and so on were all nonsense, all wrong, really. They took us to the cave where Mao lived in 1941. After 41’, he moved. And they showed us this little stone table and stone seats around it and they say, “This is where Chairman Mao talked to the American writer Anna Louise Strong about the ‘paper tiger.’ I asked, “Do you know what year that was? That was 1946.” He was long gone from that place. The people responsible haven’t paid attention to the history really, to preserve the history. Another glaring example: We went to the old Party Central Committee Meeting Hall, the only brick-and-mortar building left standing in Yan'an after the Japanese bombed the place flat. Both the guide, and the big sign outside, tell you that this is the exact original building, unchanged except for slight repairs from some damage during the war. Actually, the meeting hall has been totally rebuilt and changed. It used to be an arena with rows of simple, moveable seats and a flat floor. Now, it’s like a science conference hall—sloping floor, good quality modern seating, fixed in place. I asked the young girl who was our guide: “Do you think that Chairman Mao danced every Saturday night on this slanting floor, with these chairs?”
Question 2: One thing that spurred you onto joining Mao’s revolution was the poverty and inequality in China. Today there is a growing rank of middle class along with millionaires and billionaires and a new rich and poor gap. Is this the China you envisioned when you decided to stay behind and fight along the Chinese?
Sidney Rittenberg: Partly yes and partly no. I certainly did not think that there would be a society where there is that big a difference between the rich and poor. Also I certainly didn’t think there would be so much corruption. And there wasn’t until actually after the Cultural Revolution. When I came out of the prison after the Cultural Revolution, I couldn’t believe what was happening, really. One of our daughters was studying Esperanto. She had a friend who was teaching her in the evening. He wanted pay and got paid for teaching. Before the Cultural Revolution, it would have been considered shameful to ask for pay for helping somebody. No such thing. But that of course was very small potatoes compared with the corruption that grew up later.
Question 3: One thing that impressed you about the Communist Party in your early years in China was that they were free of corruption. Now, the same Party has become perhaps the most corrupt political party in the world, even with many rounds of anti-corruption campaigns. Why do you think is the case?
Sidney Rittenberg:: Well, first of all, I don’t think they are No. 1. They don’t get first prize. Indonesia is much worse. And in Indonesia, nobody ever goes to jail for corruption. In China, they put lots people in jail anyway. You know there are lots of other countries where corruption is even worse. But, after the Cultural Revolution, it got worse and worse till it was really bad. But I feel very encouraged to see the campaign against corruption now. It can really establish a new morality among the government workers, the Party workers. That’s a big deal, but it’s very, very hard to do. Let’s say I am a little department head in the government, and you tell me my duty is to carry out policies that help other people get rich and I myself am not allowed to get rich. That’s a tough thing to accept for lot of people. So it’s a challenge. I am not sure how and to what extent it is going to succeed. We don’t know yet. I certainly hope it will succeed, completely. There are lots of countries that have democratic elections and have several political parties, like Italy, for example. It was terribly corrupt. Everybody knows it. The former premier Berlusconi just narrowly escaped long prison sentence because he was too powerful, he got away with it. I think with proper supervision and controls, the Chinese system can be relatively free from corruption. I think it’s possible. It is very hard to do. It’s now already corrupt. It’s very hard to bring it back to clean. You know there is the old Chinese saying that to go from simple life to luxury is easy, go from luxury to simple life is hard.
Question 4: Being a loyal Party member once, you believed in Mao’s “people’s democratic dictatorship” and worked hard for it. And then you became a subject of that dictatorship, as an alleged spy. Today, in China’s Constitution, it still calls itself a “people’s democratic dictatorship.” Who is the target of that dictatorship in today’s China?
Sidney Rittenberg: In fact, anyone that the Party considers a threat to its rule would be treated like an enemy, to a greater or lesser extent. You don’t have to be somebody with a gun trying to shoot people. If they consider you a political threat, they will shut you up. In my mind, that’s dictatorship. Liu Xiaobo is a threat. I don’t think he is a threat. But he is considered a threat, and many other people like that, human rights lawyers, activists of different kinds. There was even a group of intellectuals in Beijing that met at one of the homes to discuss the Tiananmen Square incidents and they were all arrested. One of them was traveling abroad and lecturing in I think Australia. When he came back and found out the others had all been arrested, he reported himself to the police.
Question 5: You mentioned in your book that Mao once said there was no ideological crime in the People’s Republic. But everyone knows otherwise. The crime is just called different names over the years, from "counter-revolutionary" to "leaking state secrets," from “gathering crowd to disturb social order” to “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Do you think there is ideological crime in China?
Sidney Rittenberg: When Mao’s talk on correct handling of the contradictions among the people was first issued in the 50s, he said very clearly that he had six standards for judging what was right and what was wrong. And he said, if you disagree with these standards, and you don’t follow them, that’s Ok, it’s not a crime. But in fact, along came the campaign against so-called bourgeois Rightists, anyone who was believed to deviate from those standards was treated like an enemy. So the difference between what he said and what he did was enormous, in the 50s and 60s, that part of his life. My personal belief is the tightening of public opinion now, the crackdown on activism, may be that they have to do this for the time-being. Because they are the people that are in charge in China now, not me, maybe they can’t be that nice right now because what Xi Jinping is trying to do in the economic reforms, which really are basic reforms, is very very difficult, the opposition is fierce. So maybe they feel we are not going to mess with any different opinions. We are going to put blanket over all opinions except the Party’s opinion. Once the reforms really get going big time, I think we will see a loosening up. That’s what I think. That’s what I hope. Because as I said, I respect these people, as they are the ones in charge in China. I am not in the position to tell them what they should do. It’s my feeling. You know, same in here in our country. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. There is a saying in China, if you want to correct, you must over-correct. All kinds of sins are committed under these excuses. But there is also some truth in it. I am against all these things. I think they are wrong. But I reserve judgment at the end. Maybe, obviously, they think it is necessary. So I am not going to ignore the great progress that’s being made because these things that I think are wrong.
Part 2: The powerful Xi Jinping, the anti-Western-values development, and the actual U.S.-China relations
Question 6: Many China watchers say that Xi Jinping now has become the most powerful leader since Deng, if not Mao. He is the Party chief, state president and chairman of the military, and head of the “overall reform” and “national security” leading groups. There is talk of his autocratic role and less collective leadership, even a new cult. Do you see this tendency?
Sidney Rittenberg: Obviously now we have one great authority, one great leader, which we didn’t have before since Deng. Even Deng, he refused to become chairman or premier or any of that. Vice premier was highest he ever got. He used to brag about the national chairman of the China Bridge Club. That was one job he was proud of. But what I think happened… the economic reforms that are starting now… actually the Party central committee took the decision to do these things 13 or 14 years ago, and it was published. In the report to the 16th Party Congress, I forgot which one, Wen Jiabao was premier. He said very plainly that the present model of economic growth is not sustainable. We cannot go on like this. We have to make drastic changes. Specially he named three things: one, we have to go from a state-invested economy to an economy that depends on the capital markets, on investors, not state; two, we have to go from an export pulled economy to one that depends on developing the domestic market, consumer market; and three, we have to not pursue speed for speed’s sake, but speed only on condition that it helps the environment, that it produces good quality, and that it makes life better for the people. Hu Jintao also said something very similar, 13 or 14 years ago. But they couldn’t do it. They were too weak. I don’t think Hu Jintao ever had reliable majority in the Standing Committee of the Party. He had people like Zhou Yongkang and others. They weren’t able to do it.
So now, when it came to the 18th Congress, I think they made a decision: if we don’t reform, we are sunk, China. But the only way we can reform is to establish a powerful authority, with concentrated power that could break through the logjams and see to it that it is done. And I think they decided to build Xi Jinping up as that kind of man. One reason that I think this is we know something about Xi Jinping before he became all of these things. He was a man that was known to be a nice guy, easily approachable, easy to get along with, good listener. We went to Fujian, we went to Zhejiang, we went to Shanghai. They all said the same thing. We went to Hangzhou and we wanted to see him. And he was traveling. So he sent his secretary to bring us Longjing tea. But they told us that we have never had a leader that visited every singly county in Zhejiang province. That’s what he does. He goes around the counties, talks to the people on the ground to see what their problems are. Also he was known for something very praise-worthy, in Chinese 不整人, bu zheng ren, he didn’t harass people. He wasn’t mean to his opponents. So everybody thought OK now he is going to be Party secretary. You know he will spend two years consolidating his power and gradually we’ll see what he really wants to do, but not at the beginning, instead of which he comes out of his corner like a prize fighter and starts slugging immediately. I don’t think that was against Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao. I think they had agreed with this approach to begin with.
Question 7: Not only powerful, Xi Jinping has also revived some Maoism, or Mao’s practice, such as the “mass line,” “criticism and self-criticism,” his own version of Yan’an Talk on Literature and Art that art should serve the people and socialism, and his statement that one should not negate the first 30 years of the PRC, which included the Cultural Revolution. Do you see Mao in Xi Jinping?
Sidney Rittenberg: No, only in one respect: dialectic materialism. If you read the things he wrote when he was provincial leader, he always stressed theory, especially stressed dialectic logic. On that I think he is a student of Mao. Not anything else really. If you look at it, first of all, his thunderous campaign against the corruption, he does not allow it to become a mass movement. But with Mao, he emphasized mass movement. Mao’s method of operating was to sic the masses on the bad guys, let the masses expose them, struggle with them. Xi doesn’t allow any of that. If you try to start that kind of activity, they won’t allow it. So it’s very different, it’s opposite from Mao really. Mass line, not Maoism. Mass line simply means you make policy by going “to the masses and from the masses” when you are a policy making body. Before you make your policy, you listen to what people are demanding, what people need. So that’s “to the masses” and then you go “from the masses”. You bring their needs and demands up to your center and you form a policy based on that. Then you take it back to see how it works. If it’s not working, it probably won’t work perfectly, so you revise it as you go along. That’s all the mass line is. It’s not about class struggle. Really it’s got nothing to do with Mao’s ideology. I don’t think it’s anything like in Mao’s days. I think Xi Jinping went through a period when he had provincial leaders and so on going on TV. Really painless self-criticism, just very superficial things they talked about mostly. Why did he do it? I think the reason he did it was at the 18th Congress, when they took a decision to crackdown on corruption, it says that the corrupt cadre who tell the truth and change up to a certain time, I am not sure how much time it was, would not be punished. I think he was giving them an opportunity to get right before the crackdown.
(Xi’s talk on literature and art--Wen) Yeah, well, that would be following after not just Mao, it would be following after Stalin, too. Since Stalin, maybe since Lenin, that’s been the line, that artists must serve the people, which means serve the Party line, really. Because the theory is that the Party represents the people, so if you serve the people, you serve me. When you serve me, you serve the people. (Xi’s statement on PRC’s first 30 years--Wen) Well, I think that was basically right. First of all, he definitely said the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward were wrong. He wasn’t saying that we should cleave to that tradition. But he was saying, don’t think that all of those years, everything was wrong, because China today is based on that foundation, even the Great Leap Forward. That was a time when villages all over the country set up their own industries. Most of them were not good, but a lot of them survived, that are foundation for the big industries today. So he was just saying, don’t be all black or all white when you look at the past, or you look at the present, or you look at the leaders. Leaders, he said, are not saints, they are just people. So they have things that are right and things that are wrong. To avoid having people go to extremes, I think that’s right. Those years of Mao, they were tragic for a large number of intellectuals, not for most people. During the campaign against the Rightists, this professor, Ye Peiqi, at Beida. Since everybody was encouraged to talk and told that it doesn’t matter if you are wrong. He was one of those really vehement. He said that if the Party doesn’t democratize, Communists would be hanging from lamp-posts like they did in the Hungarian uprising. They had to post soldiers around his house because so many ordinary working people and farmers from the suburbs came to criticize him and attack him. Very unpopular in those days. But the intellectuals suffered. Some suffered very, very badly. Unfortunately I played an active role at Radio Beijing in combating the bourgeois Rightists.
Question 8: There was the so-called Document #9, released in 2013 under Xi, which warned the Party members of “seven erroneous ideas,” including Western constitutional democracy, Western style journalism and universal values. This year, there was reportedly a Document #30. Following it, the Minister of Education, Yuan Guiren, said that no Western values should be taught in China’s colleges. How do you see this anti-Western development?
Sidney Rittenberg: Last August I published a book in China, in Chinese and for Chinese, 口述历史, oral history, my oral history in China. They asked me to write an introduction to the Chinese readers, and I wrote. And at the end, I wrote two critical parts. First was warning the dangers of narrow nationalism. I said, politicians that try to motivate people and unify people through nationalism play a very dangerous game, because it can turn against them immediately. Very nationalistic people may think you are weak dealing with foreign countries, they will turn against you. And that’s happened, happened in China even. Also I said, anybody who teaches patriotism, national pride, without teaching internationalism, without teaching respect for other people, other nations, that calls themselves Marxists is insulting Marx, because his primary slogan was “Workers of the world unite!” “Proletarians of the world unite!” I don’t see this respect for the people in any of the propaganda these days, for example on Japan. Every day on Chinese TV, they are fighting the Japanese in the war. Nobody is saying, Japanese fundamentally are a good people that were misled by Emperor worshiping and so on into doing terrible things they seriously regretted. Right now, they are among world’s most peace-loving people. The PEW research institute did studies in several dozen countries all over the world. Question they asked was, “Would you be willing to take a gun and fight for your country if it was needed?” The number of people willing in Japan was 15%, by far the lowest. Now what you are doing, you are attacking all Japanese, and you are threatening all Japanese. So you are pushing the people over towards militarists. It’s what you are really doing. That seems to me really stupid. I think they are now correcting it. Xi Jinping shook hands with Premier Abe although he looked like he was suffering a bad toothache. But that’s OK. That’s the message. And the foreign ministers have been meeting. Hopefully there will be a summit that will calm things down. Economically they need to calm things down also. But that kind of narrow nationalism is very wrong, very dangerous. Very interesting, the censors didn’t change a word. They let it by. But the second part was about you cannot deal with opposition opinion just by shutting people up. That doesn’t work. The opinions you shut up are still there. They are still going to play a role. So the suppression of free speech, writing so on and journalism is wrong and it doesn’t work in the long run. They took every word of that out.
(Western values--Wen) Marx and Engels were both Westerners. Lenin was a Westerner. He (Minister Yuan) is going to keep him out of the university? Somebody wrote a very good answer to him, a Chinese, and made fun of him. You know the poor guy. He was just doing his job. If he doesn’t want to do that, he just has to quit. That’s what an honest man would do. It’s impossible. You are going to teach biology without Darwin?
But one thing I do agree with though. I do not want China to adopt the kind of political system that we have, because this system is broken, doesn’t work. It did once, but doesn’t now. Local governments sometimes can be quite good, but federal government, hopeless. Look at this Congress, it’s more important to defeat the other party than it is to promote your own program. They say that. I think, if China suddenly announces that they are going to permit more political parties to struggle for power, not be good.
Question 9: In March, David Shambaugh wrote in the WSJ “The Coming Chinese Crackup” and talked about how the endgame of the communist rule in China had begun and how Xi Jinping’s ruthless measures were bringing the country closer to a breaking point. You said it was pitiful that Shambaugh was doing it. How so?
Sidney Rittenberg: I think probably the Chinese government has never been as stable and firmly in place as it is today. They have a very powerful security organization for one thing. But also, the government has the support of most ordinary people. They love the campaigns against corruption. They love taking the perks away from the cadres, their government cars with chauffeurs, and their lavish dinners, so on. That’s very popular. I don’t think the CCP is in any danger. I think Shambaugh is in danger because next ten years will show how wrong he was. He didn’t use to think like this. He changed suddenly just two, three years ago. He is not the only one. There has been a whole bunch of people like that from China watchers close to the government, or close to the two big parties. They have been writing.
Question 10: Yes, in May, David Lampton described at a Carter Center event the U.S.-China relations as at a “tipping point,” where the U.S. sees China as a threat and China sees the U.S. as opposed to China’s rise. Orville Schell also talked in ChinaFile about how stubbornly cool the atmosphere between the two countries had become and how there had been more optimism and trust in 1972 than now. Do you agree with them?
Sidney Rittenberg: Yes. I do. I think Mike Lampton is very good, a deep thinker. But, the actual U.S.-China relationship is really not bad. The publicity relationship is terrible. This government is holding regular annual conferences with I think 33 or 34 branches of the Chinese government. We don’t have that with any other country. We do an enormous trade with China. I think it’s like a little over half trillion dollars a year. And this goes on normally. But we have lots of posturing and sabre-rattling going on. We have a new man at the Pentagon, Ashton Carter, reminds you of Donald Rumsfeld. And I think about the story, you know, the dog chases the bus, the dog runs after the bus. Question is what is the dog to do when he catches the bus? What’s he going to do about the bus? So Ashton Carter sends American war planes, war ships to the South China Sea, what’s he going to do once he gets there? Nothing, He can’t do anything. Neither China nor America has any idea of getting involved in a major war at this point. Even if there is an accident, in which somebody’s ship gets rammed or somebody’s plane gets shot down or something, it wouldn’t start a war. They get together and talk and make a deal. It’s not in the cards.
Part 3: "Thunder but no rain" over South China Sea, Confucian communists, and a wonderful life
Question 11: There has been a lot of back and forth, or posturing and sabre-rattling as you said, between the U.S. and China over China’s island construction in the South China Sea. China said the construction was normal. The U.S. wanted China to stop. The government-owned Global Times said war was inevitable unless the U.S. backed off. Do you see a war breaking out between the U.S. and China?
Sidney Rittenberg: I think Global Times is like a little puppy that people in charge, when they need some extreme talk, they tell it to go bark, bark. I don’t think it means anything. Actually the Chinese admiral that went to the meeting in Southeast Asia, the Shangri-La Dialogue, said something like we are not going to attack your ships. If you don’t attack us, we are not going to attack you, no matter where you sail.
You know I think about the time, 1958 I think it was, or 1959, when John Foster Dulles, the hero of the Cold War in America, he went to Taiwan and he went to the 38th Parallel in Korea and he made a lot of hostile noises to China, threatening to attack. They even spread rumors in press and said he would use nuclear weapons. So China announced that their territorial sea was 12 miles. America at that time only recognized 3 miles. So just like Ashton Carter, they sent the navy. American naval ships every day came inside the 12 mile limit. And every day, the People’s Daily, in the upper right hand corner of the front page, had a little box titled “Serious Warning #.” And the text said: “American naval ships penetrated our territorial seas so on. This is a provocation and we hereby issue a serious warning against this activity.” I don’t know how many. Must have been three hundred serious warnings. So at that time, Anna Louise Strong arrived in Beijing. She is very upset because she thinks the Chinese have been stubborn, and it’s going to be nuclear war. So she went to interview Peng Dehuai, who was Minister of Defense, and he had been commander in Korea in the Korean War. Minister Peng, very blunt, plain spoken military man. He was killed in the Cultural Revolution. So she asked him, and I was interpreter. She asked him, she said, you don’t understand the dangers of nuclear armaments. You don’t understand how terrible it would be. And he said, “Look, we Chinese are very hot in our hearts, but very cool in our heads.” He said, “We observed that the American navy comes inside the 12 mile limit, but they never cross the 6 mile limit. They split the difference. As long as they do that, we have no problem,” he said, “There is not going to be any war.” She wasn’t convinced and he was trying. I think more or less it’s that kind of situation. There is a lot of lightning and thunder, but not much rain, really, in the South China Sea.
Question 12: Xi Jinping is coming to the U.S. this September. The phrase “new type of great power relationship” he coined in his last meeting with President Obama seems still just a phrase. What do you think he can accomplish in terms of a “new type” of U.S.-China relations on this trip?
Sidney Rittenberg: It’s hard to say. So far as I know, the Obama administration has never subscribed to this idea. They haven’t opposed it, but they haven’t said, yeah, let’s have a new type of relations among great powers. Are they going to say it now, I doubt. Obama has less than two years left in office and very strong opposition in Congress. But maybe you know, there will be more agreements on global issues, like climate change, diseases, control of weapons of mass destruction, things of that sort. I think at most we can expect some provisions for how to manage crises, if there is a misunderstanding or a collision or something, what we do. Instead of fighting over it, somebody meets somebody to discuss it and work it out. We already have some such understanding with China. Maybe they will strengthen that. I don’t know. I can’t think of anything else.
(New type of great power relationship-Wen) It is a relationship we don’t fight. A new power is rising. The old power, sorry to say, is slowly declining. But not all across the board. We are still ahead in technology. I don’t know how long it will last. Often in history this has resulted in conflicts because number one doesn’t want to yield the number one seat. Mr. Ashton Carter keeps saying that we have to maintain the American predominance in Asia. So he is telling all Asians that we aim to be number one, the dominant nation. This does not make him friends. I don’t think most Asian countries want to be dominated by anyone, least of all by a Western power. But the New Cold Warriors like Ash Carter can’t help it. It’s the way they think. Here they just decided to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after 50 years. But Obama issues a statement saying the only reason we’re doing this is we want to be in a better position to subvert the Cuban government. Aren’t there any secrets anymore? It’s so stupid. I mean he doesn’t have to say it. Everybody knows it. But to flaunt it before the Cubans, what’s that going to help? Well he is defending himself against the attacks from the extreme right here, so he can’t help it.
Question 13: We just had the 26th anniversary of Tiananmen. A group of overseas Chinese students wrote an open letter to their counterparts in China about the government cover-up. The same Global Times accused them as “serving overseas hostile forces.” You said in your book that you believed that China’s leaders, sooner or later, would have to repudiate the massacre of June 4th. Do you still have that belief?
Sidney Rittenberg: Absolutely. Maybe after Li Peng dies. Reminds me of a story. We used to have a president named Calvin Coolidge before World War II, before Herbert Hoover. His nickname was Silent Cal because he seldom spoke in public. People thought that he wasn’t very bright. So we had this very witty woman writer Dorothy Parker who was always saying witty funny things. And the story is when they came and told her President Coolidge died, she said, how can they tell? That’s the way with this guy, too. Yes of course. Just as they repudiated the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, they have to repudiate June 4th. It was completely unnecessary. I think they did it deliberately because they wanted to show Chinese people, if you resist, this is what you get. And I think after they did, they were sorry, they regretted it. Deng Xiaoping said to his leading group, supposedly on the next day, that “we restored order, but we lost the hearts of the people”. That’s true. Mainly people in Beijing. People outside Beijing didn’t know what happened. The mayor of Anshan came to Beijing in the 90s, a woman mayor, we had dinner together. She asked us, what really happened on June 4th? She didn’t know.
Question 14: You joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1946. Today, the Party still calls itself communist, but it now runs a market-oriented economy, as perhaps the biggest “capitalist roader,” protects private property, enforces political censorship and promotes Confucianism. What kind of Party do you think it is now?
Sidney Rittenberg: (Laugh) To tell you the truth, it has always been like that. That was a problem with the Russians when they saw what Mao was doing in the old guerrilla bases. They say he is not a Marxist. He is a peasant revolutionary. Karl Marx himself famously… The first people that used the word Marxism was the French socialist party at a convention. They announced, in 1880s I think it was, that they were Marxists. And Marx wrote them a letter and said, well, I know one thing, I am not a Marxist. So it stretches any which way. It’s hard to say definitively what is orthodox. Li Yuanchao, who is now vice president, he wrote an article in People’s Daily four or five years ago when he was in charge in Jiangsu province. And he said, we are in the initial stage of socialism. What do we mean by socialism? We don’t know. We know what we had before was not real socialism. But what is real Socialism, we are just finding out step by step as we go forward. I think that was an honest statement. So who knows what a Communist Party is supposed to be like. Why not Confucius? It’s funny. It’s like with the Bible. You can find anything in Confucius just as you can find almost anything in Mao. You can find this way, you can find opposite, too. So if you pick and choose, it’s fine. You can use it.
Question 15: Looking back, if you knew what you know now, with long imprisonment and suffering, would you still have stayed behind in China after your UN famine relief work there ended in 1945 and why?
Sidney Rittenberg: Absolutely. That’s my life. I have a wonderful life, and it is because of my love for China and my hopes for a bright Chinese future, not to mention a wonderful Chinese wife. You know, after it’s all over and long past, the suffering looks like it’s just one part of the adventure, part of the experience, no pain. I am writing a book now about struggles in solitary confinement. I don’t feel any pain at all thinking back over those horrible days. I get asked this question a lot. I say it’s like a boxer, a prize fighter. He wins a fight after 15 rounds, one eye is closed, his ear’s swollen, and his nose crooked, he’s taken a terrible beating. But when he get the microphone, he says, hi mom. He doesn’t say, God, it was terrible. I never want to do that again. He says, I am glad I won, mom. Yulin had lot worse than I did. She was called a Traitor, you know. All she had to do was to say, “gosh, I didn’t know he was a spy.” She couldn’t do it. She kept saying my husband is a good man. Got beaten, got spit on, terribly hard labor. That love alone was worth going to China for. You know, if I hadn’t stayed in China, I hate to think of it… I might have ended up like some of my old schoolmates—filthy rich, and seeing a psychiatrist every week. So many people that can’t understand: “I am so rich, why am I not happy?” We had a client, a billionaire, he saw two psychiatrists every week. One gave him chemicals, the other analyzed him.
Wen: That was the last question actually.
Sidney Rittenberg: Well, glad to hear that.
Wen: Thank you so much, Sidney.