There is a not inconsiderable history among the children of successful, prominent Jewish families of getting involved in leftwing politics. From the Marxes to the Milibands, it’s a well-trodden path. Few have taken this tradition quite as far, however, as Sidney Rittenberg, scion of a prominent Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina.
It was in the 1930s that Rittenberg rejected a career as a lawyer and became a trade union and civil rights activist. He then went a little further. He became a communist, learnt Chinese, went to China, joined Mao Zedong’s guerrillas fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, emerged after the communist victory as a senior party member close to Mao, ran Radio Peking, translated Mao’s thoughts into English, became a leading rabble rouser in the Cultural Revolution – and, by the by, was imprisoned for 16 years in solitary confinement, accused of being a US spy. Then he came back to the US and made a fortune advising American companies on how to get into China.
I first heard of this historical revolutionary figure in China, where he is known as Li Dunbai (it sounds a little like Rittenberg to Chinese ears). To this day, he is taught about in schools as a righteous American who helped build Chinese communism.
Now 91, Rittenberg is not only alive, but living in Arizona – quite unusual for one honoured by Mao as an international communist fighter – and still running his company and teaching at a university. He is also on Facebook. The answer to an interview request came in five minutes. From his iPad. “You’re welcome,” he said.
For a veteran Chinese communist revolutionary, Rittenberg’s impish sense of humour comes as a surprise. Could I bring him anything from Britain? “I have always yearned for one of those old Scottish castles,” Rittenberg replied. “It could be disassembled, modular style, brought here and reassembled. I would, of course, require a tartan to match it.”
Even without the castle, Rittenberg greets me warmly on the doorstep. He looks, perhaps, 70. He was starved in Chinese jails, but never physically tortured – just mentally. Yulin Wang Rittenberg, his wife of 60 years, had it even tougher after the Cultural Revolution went bad on the couple in the late 1960s. She spent three years in a back-breaking labour camp – after being brutally beaten and made to sit in the doorway of the women’s restroom with a placard round her neck saying, “This is the unrepentant wife of a dog of an Imperialist spy.”