An American in Mao’s Cultural Revolution

The Revolutionary: An American in Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Directed by Irv Drasnin, Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers (2012)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the late Sidney Rittenberg, the only US citizen ever to join the Chinese Communist Party during the tenure of Mao Tse Tung

Rittenberg, active in the Southern union and civil rights movement during the early forties, was drafted in 1941 and trained in Mandarin by the US military. He was deployed to China in 1945 and served briefly as a UN observer following the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

In 1946, the Chinese Communist Party invited him to remain in China to serve as a “bridge” between the Chinese revolution and the Western world. Fearful of becoming too dependent on the Soviet Union, Mao was eager to establish good relations with the US.

After Stalin denounced him as a spy in 1949, the Chinese imprisonment him for six years (without trial) in solitary confinement. During the first year of his imprisonment, he was offered the option of returning to the US or remaining in prison under relaxed conditions allowing him full access to books and writing materials. Rittenberg, who believed that Mao’s revolution offered genuine freedom and democracy for China’s brutally oppressed poor, chose to remain in prison.

Following Stalin’s death he was released with a full apology. With his party membership restored, he was offered a prestigious position at Radio Beijing running the English language section. As a high level Communist Party official, he also enjoyed a life of privilege, with access to a chauffeur, hot water, and higher pay than Mao.

The most interesting part of the film concerns Rittenberg’s experience with three momentous programs Mao launched to counter pro-capitalist* forces in his government (the 1956 Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign, the 1958-62 Great Leap Forward and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution).

During Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Chinese intellectuals were encouraged to criticize government policies they felt weren’t working. While Mao accepted suggestions for improving existing policies, he came down hard on intellectuals (many lost their jobs or were imprisoned) who expressed outright oppositions to his policies.

During the Great Leap Forward, Mao first established vast rural communes that provided free food for all Chinese citizens, and then pulled most of the farmers off the communes to develop local steel and copper foundries. The loss of production would result in a massive famine in which 25-35 million people would die.

The famine-related deaths resulted in heavy criticism of Mao among the party leadership. The Cultural Revolution he launched in 1966 was intended to purge the Party leadership of his critics. The program consisted mainly of empowering youthful Red Brigade members to act as police, judge, and jury of authority figures  they perceived as counter-revolutionary (or simply disliked). Mao simultaneously ordered the police and army to stand back, while the Red Guards brutally assaulted, tortured, and killed people they singled out. During the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals and academics were also detained without trial and either sent to prisons, labor camps, or agricultural communes.

Erroneously believing the Cultural Revolution was a true democratic rebellion, Rittenberg, became involved in a rebel group at Radio Beijing. Initially Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and notorious Gang of Four member, encouraged his efforts. However in 1968 when he began criticizing the lack of democratic process, he found himself back in prison in solitary confinement.

He would be released shorty after Mao’s death in 1976. He and his family returned to the US in 1980, where he and his wife started new careers again in adult education. As China increasingly opened up to US investment, both embarked on lucrative careers as consultants to major Wall Street companies.

Rittenberg died August 24, 2019.


*The strength of the pro-capitalist movement Mao was struggling with becomes apparent from the speed with which China abandoned communism for industrial capitalism following his death. See How China’s Peasant Lost Collective Farming and Gained Urban Poverty

People with a public library card can see the documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine to register.

Hidden History: How China’s Peasants Lost Collective Farming and Gained Urban Poverty

From Commune to Capitalism: How China’s Peasants Lost Collective Farming and Gained Urban Poverty

By Zhun Xu

Monthly Review Press (2018)

Book Review

The purpose of this book is to dispel common Chinese Communist Party (CCP) myths about the rapid privatization of Chinese collective farms following Mao Tse Tung’s death in 1976. For me, the most interesting section concerns Mao’s decision to collectivize Chinese agriculture (which occurred more than nine years after he assumed power in 1949). It becomes clear that throughout his tenure as president, Mao was in constant conflict with a strong anti-socialist faction of the CCP that supported full adoption of capitalism in China. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a last ditch effort to rid his government of his pro-capitalist enemies. Following Mao’s death, his pro-capitalist successor Deng Xiaoping lost no time in privatizing all China’s collective farms and industry.

Xu mainly focuses on three common myths promoted by the current CCP. The first myth is that Chinese collective farms suffered from gross inefficiency and that productivity improved when collectives were dissolved and replaced with small family farms. The second myth blames this inefficiency on laziness and work avoidance, which the CCP alleges was common on collective farms. The third maintains that rural peasants initiated decollectivization spontaneously from the grassroots because they were dissatisfied with collective farming.

Myth 1: Citing detailed crop records and peasant interviews, Xu makes a compelling case that productivity declined significantly following the neoliberal* reforms (including decollectivization) the CCP implemented in the 1980s. The economic advantage of collective agriculture of small privately held family plots is that it enable rural peasants to pool their resources to mechanize their farms, set up irrigation schemes and invest in high yield hybrid crops and chemical fertilizers. Many small farmers lost access to machines and irrigation schemes following decollectivization. In fact many were left landless when cadres* and party bureaucrats seized the best land for themselves. Peasants who were left landless were forced to migrate to the cities, where they contributed to a large surplus labor pool. The latter put great pressure on urban workers who resisted privatization of state-owned industries. At present, the CCP is seeking to increase agricultural productivity by consolidating remaining family farms into large industrial scale land holdings (ie driving even more peasants off their land).

Myth 2: Work avoidance was relatively rare under Chinese collective farming, except where there was significant “stratification.” Most collectives employed a system in which members’ reimbursement was directly linked to the number of work points they accumulated. However in “stratified” collectives, the cadres running the farm abused their authority (by shirking work themselves, trading cushy work assignments for sexual favors, and punishing personal enemies with heavier work duties). This drastically impacted morale and initiative of many of the peasants under them.

Myth 3: Evidence is clear from the interviews Xu conducted that decollectivization was forcibly imposed by the CCP. Xu estimates that 30% of rural peasants supported privatization of the collectives, 30% strongly opposed it, and 40% were indifferent.

The good new is that China is having the same reaction to the failures of neoliberalism as the rest of the world (eg extreme poverty and inequality). Xu describes a renewed interest in Marxism in Chinese academic and activist circles.


*Neoliberalism is a school of economic thought popularized by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that promotes privatization of public industries and services, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and greatly reduced government spending.

**The Cadres were officials appointed by the CCP to run the collective farms, either because of their role in the Revolution or strong links to party officials.

Tienanmen Square: The First Occupy Protest

It Happened in Tienamen Square

Al Jazeera (2009)

Film Review

What I found most remarkable about this documentary is the strong similarity between the Tienanmen Square protests and Occupy Wall Street. The Tienanmen Square protest appears to have started spontaneously in mid-May 1989, with students camping out in the square. They weren’t calling for change in the way China was governed – their pro-democracy demands were strictly limited to more control over their own lives. (ie human rights).

Following Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese economy had undergone massive reform, with a shift away from strict government controlled industry to capitalist entrepreneurship dependent on western investment.

The Chinese government initially tried to suppress the protest by denouncing it in the media as “unsocialist.” This tactic backfired as hundreds of thousands of Beijing workers joined the students. In the last two Sundays in May, over one tenth of Beijing’s 10 million population turned out in Tienanmen Square.

What I find most amazing about this historic protest is that protesters refused to disperse even after the Red Army rolled in with their tanks and armored personnel carriers and began firing on them. It would take the army approximately 12 hours to clear the square. For me the most surprising footage is of injured protestors being rushed out in ambulances and pedicabs during the 12-hour confrontation.

In all 241 people (including solders) were killed in Tienanmen Square. Another 7,000 were injured.