Friday, October 23, 2009
The Man Who Stayed Behind
He personally got to know Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in the 1940s, and observed first hand how the Communists organized themselves and their public and military campaign to beat the Kuomintang (KMT).
But he was also thrown in Chinese jail in solitary confinement twice for a total of 16 years, first falsely accused of being a spy, and then later for his radical political activities.
When World War II broke out a young Rittenberg joined the army and was sent to learn Chinese; then he was sent to China in 1944. He stayed behind after the war and worked with the UN famine relief program. And that's how he met Mao and the CPC.
He said that the Mao he met in 1946 was a different one after he saw him again in 1963.
"In Yan'an, he was the best listener I'd ever met," recalls Rittenberg. "I was an unknown American and yet he asked me questions about America and he listened as though i was the world's leading authority. In contrast to Mao in the later years after the PRC in which he came through as someone who held court. He was not as good a listener."
Rittenberg explained that before coming to power, the CPC worked hard to win over the hearts and minds of people in the rural areas and intellectuals in the cities. In the rural areas they were very polite to the villagers, helping them with whatever needed to be done. This was a striking contrast to other armies, who, when they came through, were usually underpaid and underfed and exploited villagers for food and shelter.
When the Communists came to power in 1949, it was written into the constitution that the people were obligated to follow the party. Now those people who had worked hard to win over their constituents were now the masters of the country.
What Rittenberg finds ironic is that no one preached more about arrogance and abuse of power more than Mao. Rittenberg compares Mao to the preacher Billy Graham, who, for the most part, was unchanged in his habits and philosophy all his life.
A sympathizer, Rittenberg stresses that the land reforms the CPC did were sincere -- they had to do that in order to win their way to power.
However, he strongly believes that if the United States had not shut the door on China in the early 1950s, China today may have become more democratic and capitalistic than it is today. Rittenberg explains that John Leighton Stuart had wanted to establish some kind of relations with Zhou Enlai, but was denied and told by Roosevelt's Asian advisers to pack up the embassy in Nanjing and come home.
According to Rittenberg, Mao was anxious to reach out to the US for reconstruction loans and recognition; he also wanted a counterpoint to the then Soviet Union -- he didn't want to completely depend on the USSR. However, Roosevelt's administration didn't extend an invitation to Mao and so he was left with no choice but to follow Stalin's model.
If the US had been more open to Mao's call for help, Rittenberg says, then perhaps the Korean War and the Vietnam War could have been averted.
He goes on to say that in terms of regimes, Rittenberg doesn't know of any other that has made the kinds of achievements that China has. It inherited a country with semi-starved people where he saw corpses on the streets of Shanghai daily, people shot and killed for no reason and no questions asked, to now a life expectancy that has more than doubled. He says at that time it was around 31-32 years, but now it's around 72-73.
China has also joined the world, and the regime has reinvented itself to stay in power and deal with an open market economy.
While former President Jiang Zemin had the "trickle-down" theory, that wealth would eventually spread to other areas, the Hu-Wen administration is seeing that this is not necessarily working and is emphasizing economic policies that raise living standards and purchasing power of the people.
The people may grumble about the government -- and Rittenberg cites taxi drivers as the most opinionated -- on the whole most ordinary people don't love it, but they support it. In turn the country has given them much to be proud of, as evidenced by the recent National Day parade. However, the government has no ideals or morals for young people to aspire to.
When asked about China having a multi-party system, Rittenberg disagrees on the basis that alternate political groups need time to grow up, but more importantly, what would their platform be? He says it would most probably have to be anti-foreign, as the government seems to have all its bases covered in one way or another.
Also, Rittenberg witnessed first hand the downsides of the Cultural Revolution, mainly that it quickly led to despotism.
"Most people understand that majority rules, but they don't realize that you also have to protect the rights of the minority," he says. "You have to give a chance for them to speak."
But today he cites local Communist leaders are now going to be chosen through direct elections and include consultations from non-party members on possible candidates. This is the government's way of educating people on democracy, he says.
Rittenberg explained Mao's dominance began in the Yan'an years. In the first five years of the Long March, they used guerrilla tactics, but then changed to pitched battles, a strategy some brought back from the Soviets. However, those failed miserably and they brought back Mao as the head of the Military Commission, going back to guerrilla tactics.
It was after Lin Biao became the Minister of Defense in 1959 that he began the cult of Mao, collecting sayings and publishing them in a small red book. At first, according to Rittenberg, the book of quotations were only circulated in the army, and then distributed widely on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.
But nowadays, Rittenberg says the central government rules by consensus, which explains the dull speeches officials make these days he says with a laugh. While it shows the leadership is united, everyone is reading from the same script. He says this can also be a concern because the leadership isn't really listening to its own people which is not good. They are also ruling by consensus because there is no dominant leader.
He also could not understand why the government was having such a hard time dealing with its minorities. He said at the Melbourne Film Festival no one knew who Rebiya Kadeer was, but after the riots broke out, and people found out there was a movie about her, the movie goers wanted to see it. She shot into instant fame because of the Chinese government.
Rittenberg claims last year after the Tibet riots, he even asked senior officials why they did this, practically shooting themselves in the foot. One explained that they had to have mianzi or "face". The same goes with the Dalai Lama. He said who is the world going to believe, a revered monk, or the Chinese foreign ministry? He figures if China can have a success warming relationship with Taiwan, why not with the Dalai Lama who is only asking for cultural autonomy? He shakes his head.
As for the next leadership, Rittenberg predicts it will be more of the same, consensus building, probably with Xi Jinping at the head. Rittenberg knew Xi's father to be humble and did not let power get to his head. He doesn't know the younger Xi much, but expects Xi to pretty much follow in Hu's footsteps.
Rittenberg continues to travel to China frequently, consulting companies who want to enter the Middle Kingdom using his excellent pedigree and of course experience.
He's had a heck of a life full of stories that one will find hard to forget.