Sidney Rittenberg Updates [II]

Sidney Rittenberg is one of the great remaining sages able to parse out China’s past and its future. And he has now reached the lucky age of 88!

Rittenberg in Beijing

Evan Osnos, the New Yorker’s correspondent in Beijing, describes some highlights from a recent talk Rittenberg gave in the city:

[Rittenberg] on the prospects for multi-party democracy:

If you had a second party alternative in China now, I think it would be an anti-foreign party. What else could you see as a platform to challenge the Communist Party, but to oppose the foreigners who are “buying up Chinese resources”?… There has to be a period of generally unfolding democracy. Not bang, all at once. And I think that will happen. I think it’s happening much too slowly.

On the Chinese government’s responsibility to whistleblowers who expose corruption:

Protect whistleblowers, protect journalists and those who expose wrongdoing.

You have to protect those who expose [wrongdoing], or talk of fighting corruption is just talk.

On a recent blog post on a Web site backed by the People’s Daily which named Bo Xilai, a senior Party figure who is now mayor of Chongqing, and questioned his campaign against corruption:

It just said, “Bo Xilai,” three characters [without his title]. Bad news. If I saw my name like that—three characters—I would start looking for someplace to hide…. It doesn’t mean he is going to be fired, it doesn’t mean he is going to be punished. But it means that the dream of going to a city and making a splash, and then coming back to the center, is probably not going to happen.

On China’s public denunciation of the Dalai Lama:

Why is a country that can be so good at managing its diplomacy, so good at managing its Taiwan policy, so bad at ethnic policy?

On resilience:

When I first went to teach at Chapel Hill, they put a sign on the door that said, “S. Rittenberg. History.” So, I wrote, “Not yet.”

The New Yorker also includes this rather interesting discussion of how American policy is modulating toward North Korea with emphasis on steps that can be taken to further marketize the DPRK economy and reduce US-North Korea tension. I mention this because I mean to take it up with Sidney Rittenberg when I next see him: Can China’s experience in transitioning out of a cult of personality system while implementing economic reform teach us anything about the way forward with North Korea?

Rittenberg in the Puget Sound

When he isn’t in Beijing, Sidney Rittenberg is a resident of Fox Island, Washington, and a professor of Chinese Studies at Pacific Lutheran University. On November 19, 2009, at PLU, Rittenberg will be participating in a panel discussion on “China’s 21st century,” a panel which includes the formidable Bryna Goodman (University of Oregon), and myself.

Rittenberg in the French Press

Arnaud de le Grange tracked down Rittenberg in Beijing last week, and published this piece in Le Figaro:

Arnaud de le Grange, “Sidney Rittenberg, de Mao à Microsoft: Portrait de cet Américain de 88 ans, l’un des seuls étrangers à avoir partagé le quotidien révolutionnaire du Grand Timonier. Il a payé cher le prix de cette aventure hors du commun [From Mao to Microsoft: Portrait of an 88-year-old American, one of the only foreigners to see and participate in the daily revolution of the Great Helmsman: He paid a high price for this adventure out of the commune],” Le Figaro, 30 September 2009. [translation by Adam Cathcart]

Rittenberg in Pekin Oct 2009 Le Figaro
"Sidney Rittenberg at his home in Beijing. As a consultant, he lives in Seattle, but spends two or three months per year in Beijing." -- photo Gilles Sabrie, via Le Figaro

Sidney Rittenberg n’assistera pas, jeudi, place Tiananmen, au défilé du 60e anniversaire de la République populaire de Chi­ne (RPC). Il n’a pas été invité. Cet in­croyable personnage, l’un des seuls étrangers à avoir partagé le quotidien révolutionnaire de Mao, n’a pas de chance avec cette date fondatrice du 1er octobre. Il y a soixante ans, celui qui était devenu le traducteur du Grand Timonier et le suivait depuis quatre ans n’avait pu écouter son discours. Sur ordre de Staline, il venait d’être jeté dans une geôle pékinoise, accusé d’être un espion américain.

Sidney Rittenberg will not assist on Tuesday, on Tiananmen Square, in the parade for the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  He was not invited.  This incredible personage, one of the only foreigner to see and participate in the daily revolution of Mao, did have have good luck with this foundational date of October 1.  There were 60 years, during which he became the translator for the Great Helmsman and then for four years was deprived of discourse.  Under the order of Stalin, he was thrown into a Beijing gaol [être jeté dans une geôle pékinoise], accused of being an American spy.


On second thought, there are some four-year olds here who need some attention; thus I will be translating the remainder of this article this evening (Sunday, Pacific Standard Time) soon after I return to Seattle from Los Angeles.


  1. “Can China’s experience in transitioning out of a cult of personality system while implementing economic reform teach us anything about the way forward with North Korea?”


    I have been wondering for some time why the Dear Leader has been reluctant to carry out the Chinese or Vietnamese-style market economic reform. Then it suddenly dawned on me that the problem lies with the mere existence of South Korea. Part of the Chinese and Vietnamese-style economic reform is opening up the country to foreign investment and flow of information etc. (albeit on a restricted basis), something that threatens the survival of the DPRK regime, because once the North Koreans on a massive scale find out that there is a much freer, prosperous South Korea out there it might be too much and too destabilizing for the DPRK authorities to handle. Neither China nor Vietnam had to worry about that (While Vietnam has no rivaling entities at all, the impact of HK, Macau and Taiwan Province was too insignificant for the Chinese government to worry about). The question is, can the DPRK embark on some sort of economic reform and still manage to keep the people in the dark?

    How did East Germany handle this? Was there anything that the DPRK can draw upon?

  2. My partner and I received a huge amount of pleasure from the blog post. We believe that you will delight in this little quote to return the favour. – “If you put tomfoolery into a computer, nothing comes out of it but tomfoolery. But this tomfoolery, having passed through a very expensive machine, is somehow ennobled and no-one dares criticize it.” ~ Pierre Gallois

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