By Sidney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett

Simon & Schuster x 476pp x $25

What kept me turning the pages of The Man Who Stayed Behind was not any great love for its author, Sidney Rittenberg. He stands for many things I find abhorrent. As a correspondent in Beijing more than a decade ago, I had to contend with a Communist Party bureaucracy that spun big lies. Rittenberg, an American, spent many years helping turn out that propaganda. He also took part in political attacks on people during the Cultural Revolution. Even though that upheaval was over by the time I arrived, I came to know Chinese people whose relatives had died in their arms, denied medical care because they were considered "counter-revolutionary." Millions of others were killed outright or forced to commit suicide.

But one needn't admire Rittenberg to find his story fascinating. The South Carolinian went to China as a U.S. soldier during World War II and stayed on to work for the U.N. Already a self-described Communist, he hooked up with China's Communists and was accepted at the Party's highest levels. In the late 1940s, he lived with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other men and women of the Party leadership in the remote caves of Yanan. He ate with them, danced with them, slept with them. He was bombed by Kuomintang fighters and saw Mao lure Chiang Kai-shek's forces to their destruction.

While Mao has been extensively chronicled, few outsiders have been able to make such personal observations. "Mao had a way of focusing his gaze squarely on whoever was speaking, shutting out the rest of the room," Rittenberg writes. "The attention was intense and flattering." Overall, Mao emerges as brilliant, ruthless, and cold. "He thought of China--and the world, to some extent--as an experimental laboratory in his hands," the author writes. "None of the ordinary human relationships...were important to him." That emotional dead space helps explain how Mao could later launch the political struggles that inflicted such suffering.

Rittenberg's luck ran out in 1949, when his Communist buddies falsely accused him of being a U.S. spy and sent him to prison for six years. After he was exonerated, he worked turning out Party radio broadcasts. Then, beginning in 1968, he served another decade on trumped-up charges--a total of 16 years in solitary confinement. On one level, you have to admire a man who survived such brutality with even a semblance of sanity. For years, Rittenberg was required to sleep on his side, facing the cell door, so that guards could always see his hands. He withstood interrogations and intense psychological intimidation. What carried him through was faith that his ordeal would ultimately benefit his credibility within the Party. That's the unfathomable part: He believed he was achieving something.

Near the end of his second prison term, the tide turned against Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, leader of the so-called Gang of Four, and she was sent to the prison where Rittenberg was held. And here are more precious tidbits: He tells of hearing the Dragon Queen wailing from her cell, complaining about her food and shouting to her co-conspirators. Then her tough country jailer threatens: "Do what you're told or else I'll fix you good." It shows there can be a certain justice, even in China.

One of the book's most touching scenes comes when Rittenberg emerges from prison the second time and is reunited with his Chinese wife, their son, and three daughters. The three young women dance around him, saying, "Daddy, guess who's the oldest." But he can't tell them apart. "I had been away too long," he writes. "I could not find the little faces of my children in the grown-up faces I now saw before me." What a devastating price he paid for his beliefs.

It was partly through the eyes of his adult children that Rittenberg at last saw a Communist Party grown corrupt and out of touch. Deng Xiaoping's encouragement of free-thinking forces, as evidenced at Democracy Wall, and then his crushing of the movement when it had served his purpose, disillusioned Rittenberg as his own travails never had. "I had no intention of spending the rest of my life serving those whom power had corrupted...," he writes.

Such painful honesty ultimately forces us to judge Rittenberg more sympathetically. Perhaps his co-author, Amanda Bennett, once a Beijing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, kept him staring into the mirror at his own reflection. "My life's vision was flawed," Rittenberg concedes. And most poignantly: "I had fallen victim to the most basic American error about China. I had forgotten I was a foreigner."

The Rittenbergs left China in 1980 and now live near Seattle, advising U.S. companies on selling in China. I, for one, am not inclined to pour opprobrium on a lifelong Communist who tries to get rich the old-fashioned capitalist way--which is what all of China is doing. That Rittenberg survived is amazing. And--love him or hate him--he offers a window on a China few outsiders have ever glimpsed.

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