Skip to comments.The expatriate
Posted on 08/21/2008 4:47:57 PM PDT by forkinsocket
Around the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, a small crowd of foreign sympathisers came to help build the Maoist dream. Sixty years later, one of them is still there. Michael Donohue meets Sidney Shapiro.
On January 31 1949, when the Peoples Liberation Army came marching into Beijing heralding the imminent demise of Chiang Kai-sheks Guomindang regime in mainland China Sidney Shapiro, a bespectacled 33-year-old lawyer from Brooklyn, New York, rode his bicycle up to Xizhimen, the citys north-west gate, to take a look at the soldiers.
There, he remembered years later, he saw a parade of clean, smartly stepping, smiling young men being welcomed by cheering crowds, and a line of American-made vehicles that the Communists had captured from Guomindang forces. Shapiro, who had spent the last year and a half in China but had been in Beijing for only a couple of months, was enchanted. Parents held their kids higher on their shoulders for a better view, he later wrote. The streets were gay with flags and bunting. The Mao era had arrived.
Almost six decades later, Shapiro is still here a robust 92-year-old Chinese citizen with white hair, a strong handshake, and an exceptionally well-preserved Brooklyn accent. Part of a wave of westerners who settled in Beijing in the early Mao years to sign up for the socialist experiment, Shapiro is one of a tiny few who lasted long enough to experience the entire, ongoing era of Communist rule and to see China stage an Olympic opening ceremony last Friday night that gave almost no acknowledgement to Maos legacy.
Shapiro has spent much of his life trying to explain his adopted home to the West, first by translating Chinese literature into English, then by writing books of his own. In 1963, he traded his US passport for a Chinese one. Twenty years later he became a member of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, a prestigious body that makes recommendations to the Party leadership. He is not the only foreign-born member of the CPPCC, but he is the only one to have had a bar mitzvah (which took place when Calvin Coolidge was the American president).
On a Friday afternoon earlier this summer, Shapiro sat at a small table in his modest, neatly kept bungalow a minutes walk from Qianhai Lake in one of the oldest and best-preserved neighborhoods in Beijing and talked about his past. The title of his autobiography, I Chose China (2000), is slightly misleading, because his original connection to the country came entirely by chance. When the Second World War began, he was working as the junior partner in his fathers law firm in New York, feeling bored with life. Getting drafted into the army, in 1942, came as a relief. After a few months manning an anti-aircraft gun in New Jersey, he received an odd mission: to study Chinese. He excelled at the language, but the war ended without his getting to use it.
The war was a change for me, he says, and when it was over, I didnt want to go back to being a lawyer. I didnt want to spend my life helping one son of a ***** screw some other son of a ***** out of some money. So in 1947 he decided to test his new language skills in Shanghai where despite his distaste for the profession he initially found work as a lawyer.
The Chinese civil war was on, and like most of the country, Shanghai was then tightly controlled by the Guomindang, while Mao Zedongs Communists bided their time in Yanan, in the remote northwest. Shapiro didnt arrive with many pre-formed political beliefs, but in the corrupt, chaotic Shanghai of the late 1940s where, he says, there were people dying on the streets, literally it was easy to sympathise with radical politics.
He leant further leftward after meeting Fengzi, an attractive Chinese actress and journalist her name means Phoenix who was active in the Communist underground. He married her in 1948, and she soon convinced him to shut down his law practice and set out for the Communist-controlled territories. After trying unsuccessfully to make it through the Guomindang lines, the two settled in Beijing to wait for liberation. Two months later, the PLA took the city.
The next October the couple stood in a reviewing stand in Tiananmen Square and watched Mao proclaim the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China. I had never experienced anything like that, Shapiro says, recalling a crowd of hundreds of thousands. When Mao said, The Chinese people have stood up, for a moment there was a dead silence. A couple of seconds. And then, a tremendous explosion of cheers and shouts and screams and tears.
This was a lot more interesting than writing wills. As the Communists set out to transform society nationalising businesses, redistributing property, stripping landlords of their rights Shapiro became an enthusiastic convert to the cause. As he wrote years later, I was not only witnessing the miracle of a people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps out of medieval squalor, but was directly participating. For the first time in my life I had a sense of purpose.
Shapiro says he never lost his affection for Brooklyn, but he didnt set foot outside China until late 1971, when he made his first trip back to America only months before Richard Nixons historic visit to Beijing. He didnt feel he was missing anything in the States; he found America plagued by drugs, crime and general hopelessness. But he was keen to answer all the questions his old friends had about China and to dispel the many myths people had about the horrors of life under Communism.
There was, though, one question that made him nervous. His American friends wanted to know why his lovely wife, Fengzi, had not come along. Shapiro tried to avoid the question: the answer was that since 1969 after her past had fallen under suspicion his wife had been living in a prison camp far from Beijing.
******************** A couple of hundred other foreigners shared Shapiros sentiments. Some had fought for the Communists in Spain. A few were fleeing the Red Scare in the United States. Several had already spent years in China, hoping for revolution. In the 1950s they united behind the Maoist task of ending selfishness, eliminating class difference and eradicating bourgeois ideology from the world.
China gave them official foreign expert status and a comfortable place to live, usually in the Friendship Hotel on the outskirts of Beijing. (Shapiro was an exception, living on his own with his wife and, after 1950, their daughter Yamei.) The foreigners taught languages, translated propaganda or contributed scientific know-how. Some wrote books with titles like The People Have Strength, Battle Hymn of China,and When Serfs Stood Up in Tibet. George Hatem, an American doctor and a close friend of Shapiros, became a prominent public-health official. The American scientist Joan Hinton and her husband, Sid Engst, worked on a collective farm. Israel Epstein, a Polish-born journalist, edited China Reconstructs, a propaganda magazine. The American journalist Anna Louise Strong gushed about Mao in a series of dispatches called Letters from China.
Through the 1950s and most of the 1960s, life was good for these foreign experts. Shapiro, who was hired by the Foreign Languages Press to translate fiction and poetry for the magazine Chinese Literature, describes those years as a golden age. Most of his new friends were Chinese, but he often met up with a group of fellow foreigners, including Hatem, the doctor, and Rewi Alley, a writer from New Zealand. Theyd go to a hole-in-the-wall they called The Dump, which served French fries and steaks, or to The Mutton Joint, a two-story shack looking out over Qianhai Lake, and have long, rowdy dinners punctuated by rounds of comical speeches. Late into the night they would discuss dialectical materialism and sing songs like Clementine and The Wiffenpoof Song. On at least one occasion the evening culminated in drunken midnight ice-skating.
They had escaped the boredom of home, had dodged their humdrum bourgeois lives, and while the rest of the world languished under imperialist rule, they were at the centre of a new workers paradise: they believed they were showing humankind the true way out of slavery and into a new age of equality.
As Shapiro put it, in his 1979 book An American in China, the quality of human relationships had been raised to a higher level among colleagues, between leaders and the led, teacher and student, husband and wife, parent and child. Violence, except in self-defence against a class enemy, was bad. Principles, reason, were good.
******************** As a writer, Shapiros customary style is plain and affable, in the manner of a grandfather at Thanksgiving dinner. He is a devoted user of the exclamation point. He can be biting on occasion, but only in mild, folksy language: he calls Nikita Khrushchev a pipsqueak and Maos wife, Jiang Qing, a screwball.
Only one subject makes Shapiro lose his temper, and it isnt imperialism or the lamas of Tibet (though he has compared them to Nazis). He reserves his fullest ire for a man to whom he bears a few resemblances an elderly Jewish American who learnt Mandarin in the army, settled in Beijing with a Chinese wife, worked as a translator, and wrote a book about his experiences. His name is also Sidney.
Sidney Rittenberg is the 86-year-old author of The Man Who Stayed Behind (1993), a memoir of his experiences in China from the 1940s until he moved back to America in 1980. The book has been far more widely read than Shapiros autobiography, largely because it was co-written by a professional journalist, Amanda Bennett, and so possesses a scene-driven, concentrated quality that Shapiros story lacks but also because it contains up-close portraits of all the Communist leaders. Rittenberg played cards with Mao and Zhou Enlai, danced with Jiang Qing, and was even set up on a blind date with Wang Guangmei, eventual wife to Sixties-era head of state Liu Shaoqi. As a party member unlike Shapiro Rittenberg had access to secret information, like Central Committee memos to his work unit. While Shapiros story is that of an American slowly becoming a Chinese common man, Rittenbergs purports to be an inside account of the Maoist elite.
Both men were prominent figures in Beijings foreign community, but they were never friends. In fact, they detest each other. Shapiro has gone out of his way to blast Rittenberg, calling him a poseur, a hypocrite, an obvious hustler, a typical high-pressure salesman, a slippery liar and a shockingly inept and transparent spinner of tall tales.
Rittenberg, for his part, doesnt deign to mention Shapiros name in print, but in a recent phone interview from his home near Seattle, he offered a series of unverifiable claims casting aspersions on Shapiros political beliefs, his role in Chinas foreign-expert community, and even his personal life. Sidney Shapiro is one of my least favourite people in the world, he said. My question is, how sincerely was he dedicated to the Chinese revolution, and how much was it a way of getting ahead in the world and getting ahead in China?
The two Sidneys, perhaps, stand for opposing approaches to the Mao era. Shapiros regard for Communism seems based almost entirely on the systems practical value: he had seen poverty and corruption under the previous regime, and he thought that Mao had effectively changed things. Shapiro never met any senior figures (though his wife did), he never had a high-ranking position, and he never claimed to know more about Maoism than anyone else.
Rittenberg, on the other hand, was an ideas man. Hed joined the Communist Party in America before the war, and after an army posting in southwestern China hed deliberately got a job with a UN relief organisation in order to make his way to the Communist headquarters in Yanan. The Chinese Communist Party granted him membership an extremely rare thing for a foreigner and even after serving six years in prison, having been mistakenly branded a spy (from 1949 to 1955), he emerged as a true believer in the cause. In Shapiros words, he was holier than Mao.
Rittenberg acquired something like celebrity status among the foreigners in Beijing. Though, like Shapiro, he lived independently with his family, he often visited the Friendship Hotel to mix with the foreign experts. As he puts it in The Man Who Stayed Behind, in one of the many passages that read like a Kazuo Ishiguro novel: The other foreigners were starved for news and information, and my contacts, information, and clear status as an insider made me the star of the group. I never told them anything really secret, of course, but my sources of information were considered and were impeccable.
Rittenberg did have face-to-face relationships with senior officials, and he had been among a select few chosen to translate The Collected Works of Mao Zedong and other politically important texts (while Shapiro worked on relatively innocuous material like the 16th century novel Outlaws of the Marsh). But the information Rittenberg offered his fellow foreigners was ultimately not very important: it consisted mainly of what official government policy was toward some issue or another. In the open societies some of these people had left behind, such information would have been obvious, and maybe even boring. But in a country where non-party members knew so little about the workings of government, and where most of the foreigners knew only a sprinkling of Mandarin, Rittenbergs insights made him the most popular lunch partner at the Friendship Hotel.
My star was rising, Rittenberg writes in a passage about the early 1960s. Over the next two years I was more and more at the centre of things, more and more called on to perform sensitive and delicate tasks, more and more appreciated and lionised for my efforts. Everywhere I was in great demand. At Chairman Maos personal
request, I set up a network to translate and circulate Anna Louise Strongs Letters from China. I began a whirlwind, one-man campaign to set up the translation network in Beijing and recruited a translator from nearly every major language group.
He saw his discussions of Marxism with the other foreigners in Beijing people who not only had already freely chosen to live in Maoist China, but who made up less than one twenty-thousandth of one per cent of the Chinese population as a task of gigantic importance to the Party. It was delicate work, he reflects. Knowing exactly how much to say, how far to push, and then retreating and having the patience to wait until I was asked for more information.
Shapiro led a quieter life, but because both men spoke fluent Chinese and had married Chinese women, they had what most of the foreigners in Beijing yearned so desperately for: the feeling if only the feeling of being truly involved, of playing a real part in the revolution. Having moved to China to make a contribution to the cause, many foreign experts increasingly found themselves isolated in their cosy hotel with the swimming pool. They wanted China to let them be Chinese.
Then the Cultural Revolution arrived, and they got their chance.
******************** We were all very excited about the Cultural Revolution, Shapiro says now. It would get rid of feudalism and official corruption. We thought that if you had big town hall meetings and people got up and spoke, it was a good thing.
This was a common view when the movement began in 1966. China had come a long way, the line went, but revisionists had infected society with corruption, consumerism, and selfishness. That summer, revolutionary fervour swept the country. Mao was revered as a god, and millions of students came to Beijing, where Mao and Lin Biao riled them up with speeches in Tiananmen Square. Big-character posters hand-lettered propaganda broadsides went up everywhere, criticising capitalist roaders. The chief target became head of state Liu Shaoqi the top Party person in authority taking the capitalist road, as he eventually became known in the official press. Mao urged young Chinese to bombard the headquarters and smash everything old. They obliged him.
Factions fought in every work unit. They took turns physically seizing control, Shapiro says of the rebels within the Foreign Languages Press. Then they would arrest the ones who had been the activists in the other faction, and they would hold them for investigation. And sometimes they got too rough and they would kill them.
For the foreign experts, this was their big chance with the hierarchy crumbling, they could finally be treated as members of the Chinese proletariat. Rittenberg remembers running into a man from Niger whod just been harassed by a group of Red Guards. They treated me just like one of them, the man said, beaming. Just like a comrade. In January of 1967, with official government permission, about a hundred foreigners including Shapiro, who admits he was as keen as everyone else formed the Bethune-Yanan Brigade, a rebel group which met for rousing discussions of Maoist ideology.
Despite Shapiros grumblings, the group looked for guidance to Rittenberg, who had been a Cultural Revolution hard-case from the beginning. Rittenberg had not only joined a rebel faction in his own work unit, which briefly seized control of the entire Broadcast Administration an astonishing feat by itself but he had also become famous all over China for his speeches denouncing the reactionary revisionist faction of Liu Shaoqi.
In 1967 one of the popular ways of attacking the capitalist roaders was to put on A Madman of the Modern Age, a play about a previously obscure clerk named Chen Lining. A few years earlier, Chen had been committed to a mental institution, supposedly as punishment for criticising Liu Shaoqi; now that Liu was a public enemy, Red Guards freed the patient and turned him into a heroic figure who spoke at huge rallies.
At Rittenbergs urging, in June of 1967 the foreigners rebel group arranged to have A Madman of the Modern Age performed at the Friendship Hotel, and for Chen Lining to speak. It sounded like a great idea, a way for Bethune-Yanan to follow the example of other rebel groups. But it was not wise. As it turned out, Chens insanity was probably real. He was a genuine nutcase of some kind, as Rittenberg concedes now or, in Shapiros words, nutty as a fruitcake. The real problem was that the madmans tirades, past and present, did not limit themselves to Liu Shaoqi. If you read between the lines, says Shapiro, it was an attack on Mao.
Within months, the heroic madman was back in the asylum, and many of his most vocal champions were purged. On February 21 1968, according to the historian William Hinton, the Central Committee officially declared Chen Lining a counterrevolutionary.
That night, Rittenberg was taken from his home and put in prison for the second time. A few weeks later, Bethune-Yanans other two leaders the editor Israel Epstein, and a Briton named Michael Shapiro were also imprisoned.
Rittenberg thinks the Chen Lining affair had no direct relation to the arrests, but admits it was one of the things his jailers grilled him about in the early stages of his ten-year prison term. Shapiro, in contrast, thinks it directly caused the arrests, and blames Rittenberg.
Whatever the link was, theres no doubt that from that point on the foreigners were again excluded from Chinese politics. In fact, it was quickly becoming dangerous to be a foreigner in Beijing. David Crook, another member of Bethune-Yanan, had been imprisoned the previous October. The British journalist Eric Gordon was put under house arrest with his family. George Hatems house was ransacked. Rewi Alley got harassed. Even Anna Louise Strong got attacked in big-character posters.
Many left. By the historian Anne-Marie Bradys count, there had been 411 registered foreign experts at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Now the number declined to 59.
The prisoners werent released until 1973 except Rittenberg, who stayed locked up until 1977. Shapiro had no sympathy for him. The Man Who Stayed Behind contains an account of Rittenbergs reaction, in his cell, to Zhou Enlais death: I tore off the cuff of a pair of my black cotton prison pants and made myself a mourning band. Shapiros comment: The story would have been more impressive were it not for the fact that Chinese prison pants are not black and they have no cuffs!
Shapiro himself remained free. But early in 1969 his wife, who was then working at the Dramatists Association, came under investigation. By the end of the year she and many others from her work unit were living in a May 7th cadre school an education-through-labour camp, and a prison in all but name in the countryside. She later wrote that the place rivalled any hell Dante could have imagined. She remained there, with only a few furloughs to visit her family, until 1975.
For a time, Shapiro had been taken in by the Cultural Revolution. Now, living alone, he saw it was madness. Today he describes the movement as wrong, crazy, a waste of time. And yet in his autobiography he ends his section on the era thus:
Certainly some good came of the cultural revolution. The turmoil bubbled a lot of scum to the surface class enemies, sycophants, opportunists, cowards. At the same time the honest, the courageous, the dedicated showed their colours in overwhelming numbers. For millions of young people who never experienced exploitation in the old society, it proved graphically what class struggle was all about.
******************** Early one July morning, exactly three weeks before the beginning of the Olympics, Sidney Shapiro headed up the side of Qianhai Lake, on his way to do some shopping before the heat set in. Shuffling along in his black cotton slippers, wearing white socks pulled over his shins and a loose-fitting short-sleeved shirt, he looked every inch a Chinese man.
After 1978, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China turned its back on much of the Maoist program allowing private enterprise, welcoming foreign investment, and rejecting the stigma that had long been attached to personal wealth. And Shapiro, like most Chinese, shifted his political views with the times. Comparisons between the two versions of his autobiography written in the late 1970s and the late 1990s reveal some telling revisions. For example, the sentence, State capitalism isnt socialism has vanished. What saved China were the communes gets turned inside out: In spite of the failings of the communes He no longer describes the Hungarian uprising of 1956 as an attempt at a fascist coup.
We all develop, and change, he says, when asked about the revisions on his way to the department store. Some in a good way, I think, and maybe some the other way.
But he still defends China and one-party rule against all comers. Last March, when protesters rioted in Tibet, he felt the Western media coverage was a hatchet job, and published an irate column about it in China Daily. When I first contacted him, he refused to talk with me until he saw what The Nationals attitude on China would be.
His old enemy, Sidney Rittenberg, responded rather differently to the interview request: Definitely not this Friday, he e-mailed, because thats when the 3G iPhone comes out, and Ill be there first thing in the morning!
It is Shapiro, and not Rittenberg, who has stayed behind. In 1980 Rittenberg returned with his family to America, where hed never renounced his citizenship. As China became increasingly capitalist during the 1980s and 1990s, he put his old Party connections to use, founding a consulting firm that advises Western corporations in their dealings with the new market. His clients have included Microsoft, Intel, and Prudential Insurance.
Shapiro has lived in the same house since 1960, paying about 300 yuan (Dh160) a month in rent. His wife died in 1996, but he shares the house with his daughter and granddaughter, both Chinese citizens, as well as his granddaughters American husband.
Making the turn around the top of Qianhai Lake, toward the department store, Shapiro pointed out the building where the Mutton Joint used to be, where long ago the foreign experts of Beijing passed so many long and wild nights. Its now a flashy nightclub, surrounded by bars with huge signs reading Budweiser and Coors Light. Signs like these might have angered the old Maoist die-hards as would all the stock markets, shopping malls, and LeBron James billboards of todays China. But Shapiro is too flexible for that. When he got to the department store, he marvelled at the variety of goods available, the fruits of Chinas economic boom. I see so many things that are so wonderful, and so cheap! Its quite nice! he said. He fondled a pair of socks, an umbrella, some jars of jelly. Things to suit every taste! Its really a wonderful place!
“The Ugly American”
That being said, Shapiro is a putz
I’m glad he’s there, not here. I wish more of his Brooklyn born radical collectivist compatriots would become expat.’s Bernie Sanders please go!
He helped with the screwing, just the same, its just the stakes were different.
Thank you for this story. Very interesting.
This is the very reason, that all persons who serve the American public, vow to “protect the constitution” from “Enemies foreign and domestic”.
We do have domestic enemies.
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