Thursday, October 26, 2006

China? Oh yes, I was in prison there for a while

Just back from seeing Sidney Rittenberg, author of The man who stayed behind, speak at the Bookworm Cafe in Beijing. Mr Rittenberg was posted to China with the US Army towards the end of WW2 and fell in love with the language, people and country. He stayed on after his honorable discharge from the Army to work as a translator for the Communist press and even for Mao himself, then moving to famine relief work in the North West of the country. That is, until Joseph Stalin personally wrote to Mao naming him as the leader of an international spy ring based in China. 6 years in solitary confinement followed, with Mr Rittenberg continuing to protest his innocence. Released eventually after Stalin's death he stayed on in China resuming his charity work. He met and married a local Chinese girl and became involved in the Cultural revolution or rather 'The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution' ("Nothing to do with the proletariat, actually anti-cultural rather than cultural but it was Great"). His involvement landed him back in prison and back in solitary for another ten years, separated from his wife and children with no access to the outside world. Eventually with the demise of the 'Gang of Four' he was released and reunited with his wife and family (who had refused to disown him as many family members had had to during those years). A couple of years later he moved back to the US to consult on China for government and business. It's quite some story, and one even more amazing when told with a wry repartee that sat somewhere between Bob Hope and Noel Coward "They [his interrogators] would accuse me of being this international spy ringleader, I'd point out I only an insignificant American, not at all the big shot. They would tell me there was no need to be modest". Also quite something to hear about first hand about Mao, "compassionate and caring but then also extremely cruel", and the evils of the engineered class-struggles of the past. Listening to him, it did all seem a world away - the expats that constituted the audience tonight were largely young western language students with a canny eye on the market and foreign company executives. I wondered how many of the audience would stay on for another revolution and risk prison for China? (Myself included here, I hasten to add). Another sign that China now represents economic not ideological frontiers.

Mr Rittenberg is now working on a new book, a self-help guide based his philosophical training and his own mental techniques developed to help him survive in solitary. Apparently inspired by the number of times he is asked about this in the US. Now there must be a zeitgeist point to made about Americans feeling like they're in solitary confinement, or a need for more mental toughness today or existential angst or some such but you figure it out, it's late and I'm off to bed.

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