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Sidney Rittenberg, former American advisor to Mao, dies at age 98

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Washington (AFP) - Sidney Rittenberg, a former American advisor to Mao Tse-tung who spent long spells in prison as he fell in and out of favor with China's communist leaders, has died in the state of Arizona, the New York Times reported. He was 98.

The rebellious son of a prominent family from Charleston, South Carolina, Rittenberg arrived in China as a US army linguist at the end of World War II, and was soon swept up in the country's epochal civil war and communist revolution.

Fluent in Mandarin, he became a member of the Chinese communist party in 1946 after being discharged from the US Army.

Hiking 46 days to reach Mao's mountain redoubt, he served as an interpreter and traveled with the red army.

Admitted into Chairman Mao's inner circle, he also cultivated relations with Zhou Enlai, his number two, and other top leaders.

Known in China by the name Li Dunbai, Rittenberg witnessed many of the events of the Chinese revolution, which culminated in 1949 with the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China.

His loyalty and commitment was rewarded with high profile positions -- often the only visible foreigner in the regime.

But he also was twice cast out of favor, the first time soon after the communists came to power, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin falsely accused him of being an American agent.

Rittenberg spent six years in solitary confinement, but after his release in 1955 he was given a top position in China's Broadcast Administration, and later became a director of Radio Beijing, sometimes broadcasting anti-American propaganda himself.

His commitment to the communist cause remained unshaken, even during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), a drive to collectivize agriculture that led to 20 to 50 million deaths to famine.

Rittenberg was an early champion of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), joining the Red Guard whose brutal campaign against bourgeois tendencies has been blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

But in 1968, he was again arrested, this time on orders of Mao's wife, Jiang Quing, and spent the next decade behind bars. His wife, Wang Yulin, was sent to a work camp.

Freed in 1977, he returned to the United States in 1979 with his family, where he drew on a wealth of connections in China to advise the likes of Bill Gates, Michael Dell and other US businesses looking to enter the Chinese market.