Over the years, his services were engaged by hundreds of venture capitalists and American companies, including Microsoft, Intel, Prudential Insurance, Polaroid and Levi Strauss. He made a half-dozen business trips to China annually, and kept an apartment in Beijing.
“He may have been a card-carrying Communist, but he’s also very much a capitalist,” David Shrigley, a former Intel executive, told The Times in 2004. He said Mr. Rittenberg helped Intel open a semiconductor plant in China in the 1990s. “He understands what’s really going on in a very nuanced way that proved tremendously valuable to us.”
A modernizing China wanted the business, and officials commended Americans for hiring what they called friends of the People’s Republic as advisers. And it was a windfall for the Rittenbergs, who bought a home on Fox Island, Wash., overlooking Puget Sound, a condo in Bellevue, Wash., and a home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mike Wallace of CBS and the Rev. Billy Graham were among their friends.
In a reflective interview with The Financial Times in 2013, Mr. Rittenberg voiced regret over his support for Mao, calling him “a great historic leader and a great historic criminal,” and expressing dismay over his own role in the Cultural Revolution.
“I took part in victimizing innocent, good people,” he said. “It was institutionalized bullying and scapegoating, and I couldn’t see it because everything about the regime was good for me and I felt I was part of a movement for human progress, freedom and happiness. I wasn’t feeling what happened to other people. It’s a kind of corruption, exactly the kind of corruption that ruins the whole thing.”
Sidney Rittenberg was born in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 14, 1921. His father, Sidney, was president of the Charleston City Council and his grandfather had been a prominent South Carolina legislator. His mother was the daughter of a Russian immigrant. After graduating from the Porter Military Academy in Charleston in 1937, he turned down a scholarship to Princeton to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in philosophy and graduated in 1941.
He joined the American Communist Party in 1940, drawn by its platform of free speech, racial equality and roots in the labor movement. Without giving up his Communist ideals, he acceded to a party request and resigned in 1942 when he was drafted by the Army in World War II.