A Seven Decade Love Affair With China

Sidney Rittenberg answers "5 Big Questions About Asia."

Mao Zedong signs Sidney Rittenberg's copy of the Little Red Book at a gathering of Party leaders during the Cultural Revolution. (Personal Collection of Sidney Rittenberg)

On May 17, Asia Society Northern California will present Sidney Rittenberg-or Lǐ Dūnbái (李敦白)-with the 2013 Leadership & Excellence Award for Education at its 10th Anniversary Annual Dinner. Mr. Rittenberg served as a translator in China during World World II and stayed in the country after the war's end. He befriended Mao Zedong and become the first non-Chinese member of the Chinese Communist Party. He was subsequently accused of being an American spy and jailed for 16 years.

In advance of the Annual Dinner, we asked Mr. Rittenberg "5 Big Questions About Asia" in this short interview. 

When did Asia first become important to you? How did it become part of your life?

Asia became a vital part of my life in the Spring of 1945, when I was sent by the U.S. Army for a year of intensive study of China and Chinese at Stanford.

How has your thinking about Asia evolved since then?

At Stanford, I determined to spend my life building bridges between Americans and Chinese. China was the world's oldest country, positioned on the strategic arc of Asia between Japan and Russia, but desperately needing capital, science, and technology. America led the world in those three areas, and America needed export markets for them, as well as needing reliable friends abroad. It was a match made in heaven. This life purpose has obviously evolved and changed in form several times since then, but the purpose itself has never faltered. I believe it to be as viable today as ever, and of increasing importance.

What is the biggest opportunity that Asia presents today, both to itself and to the rest of the world?

Asia today has an opportunity to show the world that it is possible for competing economies to find common interests on which they can work peacefully together for their mutual benefit, and for brute force to be abandoned as a means of resolving intractable issues among nations. Recent frictions seem to threaten the realization of that opportunity, but I do not consider that it has been foreclosed.

What are the biggest challenges Asia faces today, and that the rest of the world faces at it comes to terms with Asia's rise?

Asia's challenge is to demonstrate that the abrupt rise of new great powers will not, as in the Europe of the first half of the 20th Century, lead to massive disruption and destruction, but will continue to diminish the threat of world war and will play an active role in fashioning a new type of great power relationship.

You have had a relationship with Asia Society for many years. What does Asia Society mean to you?

To me, the Asia Society is the most well established and most widespread group of serious people who study Asia and who influence public thinking and policy towards Asian countries. It deserves the most active possible support from all those who are concerned with world peace and understanding.

Read other installments of "5 Big Questions About Asia," featuring our other two Annual Dinner Honorees, Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institutue, and C. Richard Kramlich of New Enterprise Associates.

More Information & Further Reading

Details and tickets for the 10th Anniversary Annual Dinner
Sidney Rittenberg's memoir, The Man Who Stayed Behind
Asia Society Movie Review: How an American Became a 'Revolutionary' in Mao's China
The Revolutionary
official website
The Financial Times: The Man Who Made Friends with Mao
The New York Times: A Long March from Maoism to Microsoft