By Wen Liu
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
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?
On these and other pressing questions, no one can better shed light for us than Sidney Rittenberg, 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.
Liu: 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?
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.
Liu: 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?
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.
Liu: 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?
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.
Liu: 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?
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.
Liu: 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?
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 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. (end)
Wen Liu can be reached at email@example.com.