When onetime Red Guard Liang Heng left China in 1981, he was disillusioned and pessimistic about his country's future, convinced it would experience another disastrous upheaval like the Cultural Revolution.

Now a U.S. citizen and editor of a quarterly magazine published in New York for Chinese intellectuals outside China, he has returned for his first look at China in four years and finds it a freer and more prosperous country than when he left.

In an interview here, the tall, intense, bespectacled one-time radical said he has concluded that the economic changes introduced by China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, are "the only good way for China to go.

"Even though I'm not a Communist, I strongly support Deng Xiaoping's reforms," he said. "I'm a humanist, not a Communist."

Liang, 30, said his trip appeared to signal a more receptive attitude by the Chinese government to new ideas expressed in his Chinese-language magazine, which sometimes carries pieces critical of the Communist system. He said he hopes the Chinese will allow him to increase the small number of copies distributed here.

As editor-in-chief of the magazine, he has traveled a long way from his once unquestioning support for the late chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Like millions of other young Red Guards who were swept up in the utter devotion to Mao in 1966, Liang, at 12, joined the radical movement and set off on a long, exhausting march across China, which, he says, nearly killed him. He went to Peking to see Mao and, as he put it, "I would have laid down my life for the chance."

But unlike most of the other participants, who lost precious schooling and a chance for better jobs, Liang was able to attend college, and eventually leave the country.

In 1969, he was sent to work in a farming commune. But because of his height, he was encouraged to play basketball. He returned to the city to join a team and work in an oil refinery. With the reinstatement of college and university entrance examinations, he was able to resume his education.

But the lives of Liang's parents had been torn apart by radical politics. Although his mother was a loyal supporter of the Communist Party, she lost her job after being accused of being a "rightist." His father, accused of being a "capitalist roader," was forced out of his job and home.

In 1979, at the Teacher's College in Hunan Province, Liang met and fell in love with an American English teacher, Judith Shapiro. The local authorities refused to approve their request to marry. But in the spring of 1980, Shapiro, in desperation, wrote directly to leaders in Peking, and sent a copy of the letter to Deng Xiaoping.

"It seemed incredible then -- and still seems so -- but Deng, the most powerful man in the country, read Judy's appeal," said Liang in the book that he was later to write with Shapiro called "Son of the Revolution."

An official later told Liang privately that upon seeing Shapiro's letter, Deng frowned impatiently and said, "Of course they should be allowed to marry," and scrawled instructions that approval be sent by way of Premier Zhao Ziyang.

Liang says that he returned to China to see his family, to try to expand the market for his magazine here, to get a better understanding of the changes and to look at the human rights situation. He has asked for the release of jailed dissident Wei Jingsheng, an electrician and writer who was arrested in 1979 on charges of being a "counterrevolutionary."

With Shapiro, Liang has been back in China for two months now and has visited seven provinces.

From his many conversations with young people, he said he did not think the Chinese people would tolerate another radical, disruptive period such as the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when many intellectuals were not permitted to do the work for which they were trained and were sent into the fields and factories.

"What's different this time is that the reform policies are truly welcomed by the people, particularly in the countryside," he said. "Before, they had to be in the fields a certain number of hours. Now, they know that when they work, the work they do will show up in their pockets.

"The government structures which used to control them so tightly now have been disbanded. The power of the local Communist Party cadres has been drastically reduced."

This does not mean that Liang thinks today's China is without problems. He cited the corruption of some local Communist Party leaders and the large number of workers -- estimated at 30 percent of many work units' personnel -- who possess neither the skill nor the training and dedication needed to implement changes.

Another problem, he said, is the lack of laws, and he speaks in particular of the need for laws to protect scholars, writers, journalists and their fragile freedoms.