Fifty-eight years ago, Sidney Rittenberg was an idealistic young communist, dodging American bombs dropped on Mao Zedong’s revolutionary headquarters.
As the B-29s roared past, he remembers raising his arms to the sky and shouting, “Down with U.S. imperialism!”
Now he’s the go-to guy for U.S. entrepreneurs trying to get in on China’s red hot economy. He’s one of America’s most sought-after corporate matchmakers, whose clients have included Microsoft, Intel and Polaroid.
It’s been a neck-snapping ideological journey for Rittenberg, now 85 and living on Fox Island waterfront.
Rittenberg’s advice to businessmen who want to make it in the new China emphasizes perseverance and creativity.
“In almost every attempted business deal there’s a point where you hit a wall and things seem impossible,” he said. “One kind of guy just says, ‘Wall,’ and gives up. The other kind says, ‘Hmmm … There’s a wall. I wonder how I could get over it or around it or under it?’”
Those who get flummoxed by the walls are bound to fail, he said. For the others, the possibilities are nearly limitless.
Rittenberg is a small man, professorial yet down-to-earth and warm. The decor in his home, which he shares with Yulin, his wife of 49 years, is a marriage of East and West. His study, a comfortable retreat strewn with works in progress, is dominated by a vast library of books on China.
His past gives him great credibility in China, where he is widely known and revered by his Chinese name, Li Dunbai. (A Chinese bookseller gave him the name in 1945, combining the name of the famous Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai, with “Dun,” the character for uprightness. The name was supposed to sound like Rittenberg.)
During the communist revolution he worked as a propagandist, translating news releases and public statements into English. He won the position after becoming enamoured of the Communists’ egalitarian dream and remaining in China after his service as a U.S. GI in World War II.
His autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind,” tells of bouncing around in a Jeep with Mao and giving the leader’s daughter piggyback rides.
Rittenberg fell out of favor with the regime in 1949 and was put in prison, falsely accused of being a spy. He was released but imprisoned again in 1968 on the same charge. Both times he was released with apologies, but nevertheless served a total of 16 years.
Rittenberg’s work as a facilitator still takes him to China several times a year. He sees China’s ascendance to economic superpower as inevitable. Its advantages make it futile for American manufacturers to try to compete head to head. The best hope, he says, is to grab hold and ride.
“America has to partner,” he said, “or it will be left behind.”