[Marxism] From Maoism to Microsoft
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 5 09:49:56 MST 2004
NY Times, December 5, 2004
A Long March From Maoism to Microsoft
By GARY RIVLIN
FOX ISLAND, Wash.
IN one sense, Sidney Rittenberg can be viewed as just another international
business consultant scrambling to cash in on the China boom. He certainly
appears to fit the mold, driving an expensive late-model BMW and serving as
an adviser to a long list of companies that have included Microsoft, Intel,
Prudential Insurance and Polaroid.
But at 83, Mr. Rittenberg is a striking contrast with the new breed of
self-proclaimed China experts setting up shop on either side of the
Pacific, promoting themselves as corporate matchmakers. It's a safe bet,
after all, that he is the only American business consultant who can claim
to have been airbrushed out of a photograph appearing in the official
Beijing Review. And certainly none of his competitors can say, as he did in
his autobiography, "Mao didn't really like me."
From 1945 until 1980, Mr. Rittenberg lived in China. He was a member of
the Communist Party there and served as a midlevel party functionary -
except for 16 years when he was locked away in solitary confinement,
wrongly accused of being a spy. Though Mr. Rittenberg was born into a
prominent family in Charleston, S.C., his compelling tale can perhaps best
be understood as a story, writ small, of modern-day China itself. His
metamorphosis from isolated expatriate to high-priced global go-between
mirrors the country's own shift - from a closed-door Communist state to a
freewheeling money-making society, with a new class of entrepreneurs who
dream the same dreams that dance in the heads of people in places like
These days, even as Mr. Rittenberg hopes to move toward semiretirement,
demand for his services has never been greater. With hundreds of American
companies considering their first moves into China, his long experience
dealing with the country's leaders is a powerful draw.
"For a long while, Sidney was this very well-kept secret that only the top
people in technology seemed to know about," said Mark R. Anderson,
publisher of The Strategic News Service, a weekly business intelligence
digest that features Mr. Rittenberg's thoughts on China. "But word has
really started to get out over the past two years."
Mr. Rittenberg's writings are avidly followed now by the likes of Bill
Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, and Michael S. Dell, who holds the same
title at Dell Inc. Executives at Prudential, eager to sell insurance to the
Chinese, recently sought him out for advice, as did InFocus, a maker of
digital projectors. Last month, Mr. Rittenberg chaperoned Craig O. McCaw, a
cellphone industry pioneer, on Mr. McCaw's first trip to China.
"What you get with Sidney is not only his contacts," Mr. Anderson said,
"but also his understanding of the way these guys think and work, which is
As an undergraduate in college, before he was drafted, Mr. Rittenberg
belonged to the American Communist Party. He was 24 when World War II
ended, an idealist who encountered Mao and his revolutionary band during a
fact-finding mission in the Chinese hinterlands for a United Nations relief
organization. Soon Mr. Rittenberg was working for the party's propaganda
arm, translating news dispatches into English.
The pedigree of his past serves him well as he travels to China - now six
or so times a year - to help American corporations negotiate with the
relevant party and government officials.
"We can see just about anybody we need to see in China because people are
curious to meet me," said Mr. Rittenberg, who described his 35-year China
odyssey in "The Man Who Stayed Behind" (Simon & Schuster, 1993), a book he
wrote with the journalist Amanda Bennett. Mr. Rittenberg served the first
of two prolonged stretches in prison starting in 1949, the same year the
Communists took over China.
Both times he was accused of spying for the United States - and both times
the Chinese authorities ended up acknowledging that they had made a grave
He believed so strongly in the utopian vision of a classless society that
he devoted that first spell in solitary, which lasted six years, to
scraping away the vestiges of his bourgeois past so he could be an even
better Communist. He married his wife, Yulin, shortly after his release
from prison in 1955; today they have four grown children and four
grandchildren, all living in the United States.
During his second prison stint, from 1967 to 1977, he first saw the
potential for a new career in helping American corporations crack the
Chinese market. The catalyst was an article he read in The People's Daily
about President Richard M. Nixon's trip to China in 1971.
"I knew sooner or later that some tycoon would discover China," Mr.
Rittenberg said, "and I figured if I ever got out of this place, I'd have
my chance to play the role of someone who builds bridges."
Yet he would first have to wake up to the fact that his beloved Communist
Party had grown corrupt and autocratic. As he described it, his
disillusionment came only gradually, a long and painful process that was
punctuated by a single moment when his 12-year-old son interrupted a
conversation he was having with his wife several weeks after his release,
while China's notorious Gang of Four was running the country.
"I was in the kitchen arguing with Yulin from my high political throne,"
Mr. Rittenberg said. "And this little kid said, 'Dad, you talk just like
the Gang of Four.' And I thought, 'Wow.' "
In 1980, the Rittenbergs moved to Woodside, Queens, where they initially
subsisted largely on the money they made as hosts of high-priced tours of
China. "He was lucky he came back in 1980," when Jimmy Carter was still
president and the country's legal policies were less restrictive, said Leon
Wildes, senior partner at Wildes, Weinberg, Grunblatt & Wildes and a
professor of immigration law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
Mr. Rittenberg's big break came several years after his return, when the
chief executive of Computerland asked him about helping to serve as a host
for a delegation from China. Initially, he was bashful about charging
clients for simply sharing his knowledge, but he would quickly shed that
vestige of his indoctrination.
Nowadays, when Mr. Rittenberg takes on new corporate clients, they
generally commit to a one-year deal that pays him in the six figures. "He
may have been a card-carrying Communist, but he's also very much a
capitalist," said David Shrigley, a former Intel executive who worked with
Mr. Rittenberg at the start of the 1990's, when the company was seeking to
open a semiconductor plant in China. "And he wasn't shy about sending you
Intel knew little about China then, Mr. Shrigley said, which made Mr.
Rittenberg's contributions well worth his fees. Over time, Mr. Rittenberg
has developed a set of guiding principles for doing business in China:
Candor is paramount. Patience is essential. And figure on at least three
hours of prep work for every hour you would dedicate to a deal in the states.
BUT you do not hire Mr. Rittenberg because he offers rules for dealing with
the Chinese, Mr. Shrigley and other clients said. You hire him mainly to
have a consigliere at your side as you negotiate the thickets of the vast
Chinese bureaucracy. "He understands what's really going on in a very
nuanced way that proved tremendously valuable to us," Mr. Shrigley said.
"He was very good at getting a read on how a proposal was being perceived -
if it stands a chance, what the real issues are. He was also good at
helping us get a read of people in meetings."
Today Mr. Rittenberg - like China itself - may feel entirely at home
operating in the capitalist world of global commerce, but not all potential
clients necessarily feel at ease with his Communist past.
In June, he and Yulin met in Beijing with a delegation of top executives
from a large New York-based financial services corporation that he declined
to identify, shortly before a crucial meeting with a regulatory commission
there. "These suits from the headquarters in New York started giving the
people we were with hell for retaining us," he said.
But even before the meeting officially started, the chairman of the Chinese
commission interrupted the discussion to commend the company for hiring a
couple he described as friends of China and its leadership. As Mr.
Rittenberg told it, the commission chairman then added, "If you succeed in
China, I'm sure they'll be a factor in your success."
Recalling the incident, Mr. Rittenberg could not suppress a raucous laugh
and a slap on the knee. "Suddenly, I'm the all-wise consultant they can't
possibly live without," he said.
Like the Chinese officials who were once his junior comrades, Mr.
Rittenberg does not seem to waste much time wrestling with his conscience
over his new role helping those who in the past he might have described as
imperialist forces seeking to exploit China's vast resources and
downtrodden masses for personal gain. "I don't think a lot in ideological
terms of capitalism versus socialism, and neither does the leadership in
China," he said.
Even if he could, he said, he wouldn't want to undo his life, including
those years he spent locked away in Chinese prisons. "I am the person I am
today in part because of that experience," he said.
Therein, perhaps, lies the root of Mr. Rittenberg's greatest gift as a
business consultant: the perspective of someone who has lived a life that
has been both arduous and rich.
"If he bears scars from his time in prison, those are scars that he somehow
has turned to be positive for him," said Mr. Zagula, the venture
capitalist. "He's vital. He's engaged. He has a BlackBerry. He's totally
with it. He knows what's going on in the world."
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