By Wen Liu
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
No one can better shed light on U.S. and China relations 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 at his Bellevue home.
Wen Liu: 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 the 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 300 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.
Liu: 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?
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.
Liu: 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 acknowledge the massacre of June 4th. Do you still have that belief?
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”.
Liu: 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?
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. …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? …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.
Liu: 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?
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.
…Yulin had a lot worse than I did. She was called a traitor. 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?” (end)
Wen Liu can be reached at email@example.com.