From Mao to Microsoft: an American’s Chinese Odyssey

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to China, Sidney Rittenberg simply can’t resist a revolution.

In the 1940s, it was the Communists who had the best thing going. So he became the first U.S. citizen admitted to the Chinese Communist Party and served in the regime’s propaganda machine to promote the cause.

Today, it’s the capitalists’ turn, and the 83-year-old former cadre is a six-figure business consultant, helping the likes of Levi Strauss & Co. and Intel Corp. tap into a consumer revolution that Mao Tse-tung never would have imagined.

“This is the first Chinese regime in history, since Confucius, that hasn’t been hollering at people every day, ‘Save, save, save! Be frugal! ... Don’t be attached to material things,’ ” Rittenberg said recently over a lunch at the capital’s luxurious Grand Hyatt Beijing hotel, a striking new glass edifice near the upscale Wangfujing shopping district.


“This government is saying ‘Spend, spend, spend.’ ... Why? Because they’ve discovered that’s the great secret of the American economy. People spend, people waste, so the wheels of industry turn to make more stuff.”

But the revolution that perhaps interests him most is the one he says is coming: a uniquely Chinese form of democracy born of a mix of Confucian ethics and modern consumerism.

“It may be a pipe dream, but I think it’s possible in this country, over time, they will create something new,” he said. “They’ll create a kind of democratic political system ... something involving consultations, a lot of meetings in advance. But it will be a different kind of democratic system.”

If anyone would have historical perspective on China, it would be Rittenberg.


A native of South Carolina, he learned Chinese at Stanford University and came to China in the mid-1940s as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. After his honorable discharge, he remained, using the name Li Dunbai, and cast his lot with Mao’s ragtag peasant forces.

Rittenberg’s first meeting with Mao came in October 1946, at a Saturday night dance.

The guerrilla leader stopped in the middle of a foxtrot to greet the 25-year-old Rittenberg, who then danced with Mao’s wife. The next morning, Rittenberg took a jeep ride with Mao, who lectured about the “impotence” of the imperialists.

Rittenberg went to work translating Communist rebel broadcasts into English. He so impressed the movement’s leadership that he was granted membership in the party. He went to work in the Broadcast Administration after Mao and his colleagues seized power in 1949.

But Rittenberg soon fell victim to the paranoid excesses and political betrayals that marked Mao’s reign. He was twice thrown into prison, serving a decade and a half on trumped-up charges of spying -- the first time from 1949 to 1955.

During the second prison term, from 1968 to 1977, Rittenberg concluded that Marxism and Leninism were “wrong.”

Rather than experience the revelation as a crushing blow, Rittenberg recalled that he felt “very happy. I felt I was relieved of the delusions that I had.”

In 1979, when he flew his Chinese wife, Yulin, and their four children to a new life in the United States. But Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, initiated reforms that began the shift to a market-driven economy, and the next Chinese revolution was underway. This time it came looking for him.


“As soon as we got back ... we were sort of in demand by American businesspeople who wanted to talk about China,” he said.

His first client: the United States Information Agency, which needed advice on how to put on the first American trade exhibition in Beijing.

After working for ComputerLand and a couple of other companies, he and his wife formed Rittenberg Associates in 1986.

Rittenberg said he counsels U.S. companies to consider China a long-term investment and to show proper respect for Chinese counterparts and their customs.

He described how an Intel executive once turned to him for help when his Chinese hosts set before him a plate of fried scorpions.

“He said, ‘What do I do about it?’ I said, ‘Eat it.’ So he ate it -- crunch, crunch, crunch,” Rittenberg said, chuckling.

He said cultural respect also means recognizing the Chinese have a different view on issues such as the environment and human rights and will change when they see the need -- not because the U.S. demands it.

Intellectual property rights is one area in which there has been progress, he said. Ten years ago “to steal a foreign technology ... in the eyes of the average Chinese was an act of patriotism. Today, it’s very different because the Chinese investment in [research and development] in their own companies is seriously hampered by the threat of counterfeiting.”


There are other hopeful signs, he said. The government seems serious about fighting corruption. It has moved to reduce the rural tax burden, thus allowing for “a great growth of commerce and industry in the countryside.” And although the government has been encouraging a collective spending spree, he thinks the country will soon temper its materialistic giddiness.

Most of all, he said, China is going slow with big changes, taking a lesson from Russia.

“Here, they’re trying to convert the Communist Party into something that is going to be a democratic core for the gradual development of the democratic society,” he said.

Rittenberg said it “just seems like a natural progression” to be serving as a scout for the same “capitalist roaders” denounced during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

At that time, he noted, the site of the Hyatt was a vegetable and fruit market, the Wangfujing shopping district a road called Anti-Imperialist Street.

“It now runs from McDonald’s straight through to Banana Republic,” he said.