An American idealist in China survives life under communism

May 02, 1993|By Ian Johnson

THE MAN WHO

STAYED BEHIND.

Sidney Rittenberg

and Amanda Bennett.

Simon & Schuster.

475 pages. $25.

Sidney Rittenberg's life has been a string of improbabilities. A South Carolina youth inflamed by notions of social justice, he became the only foreigner to join the Chinese Communist Party. An early victim of the party's paranoia, he chose to stay in China after being released from his gulag. A Chinese Communist for 35 years, he returned to 1980s America to become a successful businessman.

His life has encompassed true love, Mao Tse-tung and drug-induced insanity, which makes it easy to underestimate this autobiography. With such a tale to tell, who couldn't write such good reading?

Plenty of people, of course, but Mr. Rittenberg's story is notable for more than its readability.

For the fan of contemporary events, he gives glimpses of the arrogant few, including himself for a while, at the top of the People's Republic of China when that country was closed off to most foreigners.

From a moral point of view, his story shows that the unbridled belief in an idea, even a seemingly good one, can victimize millions and destroy itself.

If the story sounds pretty involved, it really isn't, a fact that may have to do with Mr. Rittenberg's co-author, Wall Street Journal reporter Amanda Bennett, a China correspondent in the early 1980s.

The two have fashioned the best of biographies: a story that tells of a life worth knowing while reflecting an interesting period of history.

As the title implies, many Americans went to China in the 1940s. Some, like Mr. Rittenberg, were communists fired up by the ideas of social justice and appalled by the conditions they found in the world's most populous country -- conditions they, at least in part, were right for placing at the steps of the U.S.-backed Kuomintang (KMT) regime of Time magazine's favorite son, Chiang Kai-shek.

But as the Communists and KMT forces squared off for civil war, most U.S. nationals got out of China -- or at least moved to KMT-occupied parts of China, where they stood a better chance a friendly reception.

Not Mr. Rittenberg. As enthusiastic as he was naive, he stayed with the Communists, never thinking that he might be taken for a spy.

Apparently ignorant of the party's earlier witch hunts for imaginary opponents, Mr. Rittenberg assumed that his all-out commitment to their cause was impervious armor to Chinese xenophobia.

What followed were six years of solitary confinement, in which he

was given mind-bending drugs that left him a raving maniac.

Later he was taken off the drugs, and allowed to perfect his Chinese by reading People's Daily, the works of Mao, and Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" in Chinese.

The most amazing part of his story was his decision to stay in China after being released in 1955 -- a tribute perhaps as much to his pigheadedness as to his faith in the Communist Party, which he assumed had now learned that he was true to the revolution.

Of course, he was wrong, and 13 years later he landed back in jail for another 10 years of confinement.

We have to remind ourselves that for all Mr. Rittenberg's suffering, his fate was really no different from that of millions of Chinese. While the spying charges against Mr. Rittenberg may have been specific to his foreign looks, he was treated with the same contempt and brutality meted out to local victims of Maoism.

This is a fact that Mr. Rittenberg doesn't play down; neither does it detract from the value of the book. His role as translator of many of the leaders' speeches meant that he had access to high places.

The portraits he draws are seldom flattering, although Mr. Rittenberg admits that he was so smitten by the Chinese Revolution that he continued to think of Mao as a great philosopher until being thrown in jail for taking Mao's calls for democracy too seriously.

Only upon release from prison did he realize that Mao's calls for democracy camouflaged his designs to consolidate power.

The proof of Mr. Rittenberg's honesty is that he does little to make himself appealing. Over and over again, we wonder why he thrust himself into the Chinese power struggles and why he felt an almost compulsive need to be accepted, to be part of this movement.

In the end we never learn what drove him to these lengths, but we do get an intimate glimpse of the out-of-touch ideologues who ran China. That, with Mr. Rittenberg's grace under torture and a happy end, makes the book well worth the reader's time.

Mr. Johnson is chief of the New York Bureau of The Sun.

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