Nearly 30 years after defecting to Communist China, James Veneris hopes that history will discharge him more honorably than the U.S. military did.

Should he be remembered as an Army turncoat who collaborated with his Korean War captors? Or, should he be thought of, as he fancies himself, a self-appointed American good-will ambassador who "beat Nixon and Kissinger to China by 18 years"?

Now 59 and hobbled by a leg injury, Veneris, the son of Greek immigrants, joined the Army in 1950 to stop communism in Asia and then went to work for it. He lives in this east China city groping for a historical identity.

"I've been called a traitor, brainwashed," he said recently. "Sooner or later the truth will come out on my side. I'm not a bad person. I've tried to be the greatest American patriot by making friends with the Chinese people. But I saw what people think of me. The insults hurt."

When he returned to the United States in 1976 for his only visit, he discovered that memories die hard.

"I applied to the Army for my back pay," he recalled. "They told me I was a 'dejector' who was dishonorably discharged and not entitled to nothing. All my records were burned. It was like I'd died."

Veneris came to China in 1954 after serving 3 1/2 years in a North Korean prison camp run by Chinese. He was one of 21 Americans who refused repatriation to the United States after the war, electing to go home with their jailers instead. Only Veneris and a man name Ward Adams remain.

When historians look back at this era, they are likely to view Veneris as the classic "true believer," the American who found stability in China's totalitarianism and a sense of purpose in its pioneering spirit. His odyssey from McCarthyism to Maoism surely is unique.

Veneris' political evolution neatly folds into the web of contradictions that bind together his life: a communist sympathizer who preaches the American way; a bluff, gregarious native of Pennsylvania's coal country who has successfully navigated China's treacherous political mine fields; an English teacher who mispronounces many of the long words he uses.

On the wall of Veneris' two-room apartment hangs a huge portrait of the late Communist Party chairman Mao Tse-tung and one of his most famous slogans: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

To emphasize the point, Veneris mounted the replica of an American revolutionary war musket below the quotation, aiming the gun at a map of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan that hangs on an adjoining wall.

"I'm not a bellicose element, but we've got to stop the Russian bear from creating world chaos," he declared, reciting a popular Chinese view. "If the bear clawed away at the United States, I'd pick up the gun again."

Veneris' world view has been shaped by his years as one of the few American witnesses to almost all of Communist Chinese history. He drained swamps and planted trees for the "New China," worked alongside Russian advisers, wrote big character posters during the Cultural Revolution and celebrated Sino-American rapprochement.

He married three Chinese women, fathered two children, dressed like Chinese, lived like Chinese, worked like Chinese and ate like Chinese for most of his adult life.

Still, he maintains his U.S. citizenship and evokes the personality of the America he left behind in the late 1940s. His language is laced with postwar cliches. He talks longingly of unfiltered Lucky Strikes, black coffee, banana splits and Gen. Matthew Ridgway, a former commander of American forces in Europe during World War II and in Korea.

When an American surprised Veneris with a visit to Jinan, he welcomed the visitor, saying: "If I knew you were coming, I'd have baked a cake."

"I haven't lost being an American," he said in a recent interview. "That never changes. I came here to be friends with the Chinese, not to 'disnounce' my citizenship."

When Veneris came to Asia in 1950, friendship was the last thing on his mind. He had been drifting in the United States from job to job and city to city when the Korean War broke out and Uncle Sam began looking for recruits.

"I thought the Communists were going to take over the world, so I signed up," he recalled. "I thought it was the right thing to do."

One month after arriving in Korea, PFC Veneris was captured by Chinese soldiers in a 2 a.m. raid and taken to a prisoner of war camp near the Sino-Korean border. He remembers the date, Nov. 8, 1950, which, he says, "was the turning point of my life."

"After 3 1/2 years, I came to the conclusion that the Chinese people are not our enemy," he said of his conversion. "What then-U.S. senator Joseph R. McCarthy saw and what I saw in Korea were two different things."

When the war ended, he decided to see more of what he liked in prison and accepted the Chinese offer to visit the land of his captors.

Although he was denounced by Americans at the time as a traitor and collaborator, he claims never to have betrayed U.S. interests or his fellow prisoners.

"I couldn't become a big capitalist in America, I couldn't become a millionaire, so I decided to be a bridge between the Chinese and American people," he said, explaining his decision to defect.

Then, misquoting a great American patriot, Veneris added, "as Patrick Henry said, 'If that's treason, make the best of it.' "

The China Veneris found in 1954 was a highly motivated nation where Communist leaders still enjoyed popularity five years after their revolution and where "people thought more of their country than of themselves," he said.

"I felt there was something to believe in," he said. "Everybody was working together to build up the nation. I found an orientation."

Unlike other Americans who went to Peking to become prestigious English teachers or editors, Veneris chose to come to this dusty provincial capital to labor in a factory doing what he learned as a young man growing up in Vandergrift, Pa. For the next 10 years, he worked in a paper mill making toilet paper out of the wornout hemp of peasant shoes.

He remained at the mill until 1963 when he was allowed to study at People's University in Peking. He read Marxism-Leninism, Maoism and the history of the international Communist movement. But, he said, he wrote his thesis on U.S. history.

"I told them the American people are hard working, very straightforward and they'll give you the shirt off their backs," he said. "I told them about the covered wagons and the Appalachian Trail. When I was done, they gave me an A+"

By the time he graduated in 1966, however, Veneris was a dedicated Maoist with ideological ammunition for the Cultural Revolution then sweeping China. He attended rallies, taunted "capitalist roaders" and even hoisted a big character poster denouncing Mao's archenemy, president Liu Shao-chi.

When a Red Guard faction called him a foreign spy and tried to vilify him publicly, Veneris' old factory coworkers safely hid him.

"It was like McCarthyism but much worse," he says today. "Everything isn't a bed of roses."

The political chaos also cost him his second marriage. When the Red Guards turned against him, so did his Chinese wife and their children, who called him a "paper tiger," Mao's epithet for Americans in those days.

He obtained a rare Chinese divorce from his second wife. His first died of tuberculosis in 1965.

"I still think Mao was one of the greatest leaders the world has ever had," he observed. "Mao made mistakes, but it was the system that went wrong, not the man."

Since breaking his leg in 1979, Veneris, a short, muscular man, has led the sedentary life of an English instructor. He lives with his third wife on the campus of Shandong University.

Friends address him by his Chinese name, Lao Wen, and they stop for a chat with this curious looking foreigner with the silver hair and thick, black-rimmed glasses. He speaks Chinese with a heavy accent.

"In America, people don't agree with you and still shake your hand," he said. "That's freedom. According to Hoyle, you're supposed to bring out all your ideas here, too. But Chinese are, well, they're different."

Has half a lifetime in China made Veneris more Chinese than American, he was asked.

"When I die, I don't want nobody to know nothing about it," he said quietly. "No propaganda. I don't want a funeral. Don't send any flowers. Just take my body to the crematorium and burn me.

"Then, take half my ashes and throw them into the Mississippi River and the other half into the Yellow River and call it quits."