Former American adviser to the Communist Party of China, Sidney Rittenberg, died on Aug. 24 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 98 years old.
Rittenberg was a long time Washington state resident, owning a home in Bellevue and on Fox Island. The Northwest Asian Weekly honored him in the 1980s with an Asian American Pioneer Award.
Rittenberg stayed in China for 35 years after World War II, and later made millions as a business consultant to Western companies like Microsoft, wanting to enter Chinese markets.
Rittenberg first arrived in China in 1944 as an American soldier who was proficient in Chinese—which he learned after the U.S. Army sent him to its language school at Stanford University.
He was in Shanghai working for a United Nations relief agency, and it was there that he met members of the Communist Party who encouraged him to head to Yan’an, where Mao was leading the Communist Revolution in China.
The South Carolina native went on to develop a good rapport with China’s top brass—Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. But it was not all smooth-sailing—Rittenberg was imprisoned twice by his own party over the course of his China tenure. Coming at the request of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, he was jailed for allegedly being a spy sent from America to “undermine the revolution.” His six years in prison came to an end after Stalin died in 1953.
In early 1968, Rittenberg was imprisoned again over accusations of being a Western spy and he spent 10 years in prison. The New York Times reported that Rittenberg had attributed his arrest to Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s wife and a member of the Gang of Four. After Jiang and other members of the faction were put on trial, Rittenberg was released in 1977.
When China and the United States had established diplomatic relations in 1979, Rittenberg decided to return to the United States, where he had always remained a citizen.
Over the years, Rittenberg remained “an uncompromising champion of fair-minded appreciation of Chinese culture and society,” as is stated in his biography on the Pacific Lutheran University website, where he was a visiting professor.