Three years in a Chinese-run prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea was all the convincing James Veneris needed. When the Korean War ended in 1953 and the young American was given the choice of going home or moving to the land of his captors, he didn't hesitate.
He moved to China.
"I loved their spirit, I loved their ideology and what they were trying to do," he said recently of the Communist Chinese, whose newly unified nation was struggling to survive past infancy. "And I wanted to help them build up the country."
But the U.S. government branded Veneris a traitor.
It was the same epithet it had spat out at Joan Hinton, a left-wing nuclear physicist who came to China in 1948 to support the Communist cause. Just who was this "femme fatale with a vengeance," an American magazine asked ominously, "this Mata Hari" whose scientific genius was no doubt being put to use by America's enemy?
The answer these days is a silver-haired, warmhearted woman who lives and works on a dairy farm outside Beijing. Like Veneris, Hinton has for the past half a century made her home in China, a world away from contemporaries back in the U.S.
Veneris and Hinton are among only a handful of Western witnesses to one of the most tumultuous periods in the 20th century: the founding and development of the People's Republic of China, 50 years of famine, political upheaval, hot and cold wars, and momentous economic change.
These "old China hands," a ragtag bunch of radicals drawn by dreams of egalitarian living in a far-off land, were once several score strong. Joined by English and other Western expatriates, they served as translators, or staffed the New China News Agency, among other occupations.
Now they are a dying breed. Few are left to swap stories of the old days, when both China and they were young, idealistic and devoted to a grand experiment. And much of what they toiled to build, a socialist utopia, has been washed away by the tide of China's capitalist reforms.
But the yarns they spin are as dramatic and lively as if the events happened yesterday. Tales of adventure in war. Of hardship in peace. And, at times, of misunderstanding in both their adopted and native homelands. The only thing missing from their stories is regret.
"It was one of the greatest things I ever did," Veneris, 77, said of his decision to move here to Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, where he has lived off and on for 46 years. "I would do it again in the wink of an eyelash."
Their passages to China happened variously. Hinton shucked a promising career--which included top-secret work on the atomic bomb--to follow her leftist ideals and her sweetheart, Sid Engst, across the Pacific. "The mecca of the left at that time was China," recalled Engst, 80, still married to Hinton and still an ardent leftist. "The Soviet Union didn't have any attraction . . . whereas the Chinese Communists were all very open and friendly toward foreigners."
Stumbling Into the Revolution
New Yorker Sidney Shapiro, now 83, was no longer interested in practicing law, so he packed up his gear and set sail for Shanghai in 1947. He arrived on April Fools' Day, stumbled into a revolution in progress and ultimately signed up.
Whereas the others surrendered to their ideals, Army Pvt. Veneris began his Chinese odyssey by surrendering to the enemy.
A recruit from Vandergrift, Pa., Veneris had enlisted to help fight the Communists in Korea--a "blind patriot," he dismissively describes himself now. In the fall of 1950, Veneris' division found itself trapped in the freezing fields of North Korea, surrounded by advancing Chinese soldiers.
On the night of Nov. 28, the Chinese opened fire. Outgunned, Veneris crawled down from the hill where he had taken refuge and, along with other soldiers, gave himself up.
They were eventually taken to a POW camp near the Chinese border. Veneris was impressed with the treatment from his captors, who he said sometimes sacrificed their own meager rations so that the prisoners could eat. "I felt like I was a guest," Veneris maintains today, recounting his experiences in a voice like sandpaper on wood, raspy from frequent drags on the cigarettes he smokes one after another.
The agreement ending the Korean War allowed American POWs to pick where they wanted to settle, and to the U.S. government's surprise, nearly two dozen men elected to move to China. Veneris seized on this "new lease on life" and wound up in Jinan as a lathe operator in a paper mill, a properly proletarian job in the new China of Mao Tse-tung.
By the time Veneris arrived, Hinton, Engst and Shapiro were already veterans of the Communist revolution.
Each had risked personal safety to sneak into regions of China "liberated" by the Communists. Shapiro wed a left-wing Chinese and helped plot ways to smuggle medical supplies into Communist-held areas. Engst and Hinton bivouacked with guerrillas in the caves of Yanan, sacred in Communist lore as the place where Mao set up his headquarters after the celebrated Long March in the 1930s.
"Mao was really something else. He was always asking questions," said Engst, savoring his memory of the man who would go on to rule China like a despot for nearly 30 turbulent years. "Mao was very deep in his thinking, always saw things in many layers."
Communal Spirit Brings Hope to China
All of them were shocked by the poverty and suffering that pressed in on every side, choking the air with the grit of misery. People dying in the streets. Women selling their bodies--or their children--for something to eat.
"What I saw with my own eyes in Shanghai radicalized me completely," Shapiro said. "When I saw the terrible brutality and suffering, bodies literally lying in the street . . . that was when I started to be sympathetic [to the Communists] and believed a revolution was necessary. I didn't know anything of Marxism or Mao then."
The days after the defeat of the Nationalists in 1949 are remembered by many Chinese old-timers--not just the few foreigners like Hinton and Veneris--as halcyon times. Not that the deprivation suddenly ceased: Food was hard to come by, and living conditions remained squalid. "It was still a very, very poor country," said Veneris.
But a nationwide communal spirit, the sense of setting out on a grand undertaking after years of fragmentation and strife, infused millions of ordinary Chinese with hope. They threw themselves into building up the nation's backward industrial sector and improving the lot of farmers, who had been little more than serfs under China's ancient feudal system.
For opponents of the regime, the situation was tense. The government restricted freedom of speech, and many dissenting thinkers were forced to offer self-criticisms and "rectify" their thinking. Yet corruption was virtually stamped out. Prostitution was banned, and the crippling practice of foot-binding for women ended. Petty crime was practically unheard-of as most people applied themselves enthusiastically to building the "new China."
Though they remained anomalies because of their white skin, the resettled Westerners found themselves largely accepted by Chinese neighbors and caught up in the same fervor.
"You had an exceptionally decent society, an exceptionally moral society, a very public-spirited society," said Shapiro, who found work as a literary translator.
But trouble was brewing, both within China and back in the United States.
At the end of the 1950s--with China still struggling to survive, much less advance--Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, a mass collectivization campaign that herded farmers into huge communes to increase production.
The movement precipitated a catastrophe without precedent. Many scholars now conclude that Mao's policies, coupled with such natural setbacks as drought, produced the worst human-caused famine in history. As many as 30 million farmers died of starvation, according to some estimates.
In the manner of true believers, however, the old China hands refuse to credit that figure. Nor do they blame Mao directly for mistakes committed during the Great Leap Forward.
Instead, they prefer to focus on the euphoria that at the time gripped the Chinese, who redoubled their efforts in the belief that paradise lay around the corner. On Hinton and Engst's dairy farm, workers strove not to spill a drop of milk.
"The atmosphere was like a Boy Scout jamboree. People were very sincere, very happy; everybody thought of their fellow man, not just money, money, money, like it is now," Shapiro insisted. "There wasn't a lot of food to eat, and the clothes you wore weren't very nice, but nobody cared."
Denunciation From American Homeland
At about the same time, another sort of public mobilization was underway--this one in the U.S.--that would come to bear on the lives of the American radicals in China. By the mid-'50s, the Red scare whipped up by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy was at its height.
When Veneris and the other POWs decided to move to China--their stated right under the U.N. peace accord after the Korean War--the U.S. denounced them as defectors and slapped them with dishonorable discharges. The decision rankles Veneris to this day because he receives no benefits for his military service. "The real traitors were the policymakers," he grumbled.
Both as a scientist and a woman, Hinton turned into the subject of major intrigue.
When news reports reached the United States of a speech she delivered at an Asian peace conference in Beijing in 1953, the U.S. political establishment was shocked. Though tame by today's standards, the address--advocating peace and expressing Hinton's disgust at the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan nearly a decade earlier--fed the anti-Communist hysteria. What was this all-American girl who once worked on the Manhattan Project doing in Red China?
Hinton, 77, chortles now as she pulls out magazine articles from the time, which paint her in comic-book colors as a trench-coated spy handing over nuclear secrets to the enemy. In reality, she said, the most science she ever did in China centered on finding the best way to breed horses and milk cows.
Despite all the condemnation in their native land, neither Hinton nor Veneris gave up their U.S. citizenship. "It's not a person's passport that determines his nature," Veneris said.
Only Shapiro became a Chinese citizen, in 1963, a few years before one of the most troubled periods of his life in his adopted country.
After the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, Shapiro's wife, Fengzi, was put under virtual house arrest for several years at a Beijing school because of her views in support of Premier Chou En-lai and against Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. Shapiro was forced to raise their daughter by himself.
Factionalism swept the country as teenage Red Guards roamed around persecuting "class enemies."
"It was terrible," Shapiro said. "The thing that kept me going was that it was so stupid and obviously wrong that it had to end any day."
It lasted 10 years.
Veneris, who had just finished earning his bachelor's degree at a Beijing university when the Cultural Revolution erupted, returned to Jinan--by choice, he said--to toil in the paper mill. "I had questions," Veneris recalled. "I said, 'Chairman Mao is one of the greatest leaders of the world, but even great leaders can make mistakes.' "
Only Hinton and Engst disagree. Still Maoists to the core, they wax nostalgic about an era most Chinese now label a disaster.
"The way they talk about it now, it sounds terrible. But everyone got three meals a day," said Hinton, who had moved to Beijing by then.
And the political mood was vibrant and exciting, she said. Every day, she pedaled her bicycle around the city to read the latest political posters. Mass rallies in Tiananmen Square lionized Mao and the great Communist cause.
"Of course, some intellectuals got burned," said Hinton, in passing reference to the thousands of men and women who were harassed and hounded, often to the point of death. But, Hinton added, quoting one of Mao's most famous sayings, "It was a revolution, not a dinner party."
After Mao's death in 1976, much of the revolution also ended. The convulsiveness of the first three decades of the People's Republic gave way to comparatively stable development through the market reforms implemented by Mao's successor, the late Deng Xiaoping, starting in 1979.
Two decades later, the aging Western radicals are now living out the twilight of their lives in quiet, sometimes impressed, other times depressed over the way China has changed since their first heady years here.
They mourn the loss of communal spirit and the rise in corruption and crime. They deplore the widening gap in income as some Chinese race to riches while others remain in rags. "They're throwing away some of the best features of socialism," Shapiro lamented.
And most of these old China hands denounce the current regime for its 1989 massacre of hundreds--and by some counts more than a thousand--protesters in and around Tiananmen Square. "That the government shot at the people was the biggest crime," said Hinton, whose contempt for Deng nearly equals her admiration for Mao.
Overall, however, they cling to their faith in China's progress, which they largely credit to the Communist government. Although they acknowledge mistakes by China's leaders, these veterans of a foreign revolution still believe in the cause that brought them across the Pacific Ocean.
They emphasize the strides Chinese society has made, and defend China against criticism of its human rights record or the lack of certain freedoms, such as unfettered expression, taken for granted in the land of their birth.
"I'm a loudmouthed guy from Brooklyn," Shapiro said. "I find that the people on the streets, the taxi drivers, they're very vocal, even sometimes saying unkind things about the Chinese Communist Party. Since I've been here, there's not been any reticence to speak your mind."
And the United States, for all its strengths, has its own problems, the old China hands point out. "It's a wealthy country. The only problem is that it's very individualistic--it can be very lonely," said Hinton, who still longs for the old days of the revolution.
Radical Fire Has Cooled
Still, the old radical fire has cooled, replaced by thoughts of children and grandchildren, many of whom have moved to the U.S.
Shapiro has written two autobiographies and spends much of his time sending e-mail messages from his tranquil courtyard home in an old section of Beijing. Hinton and Engst still work on their dairy farm, two silvering but sharp seniors whose official status as "old cadres" of the revolution entitle them to benefits such as free medical care.
Veneris, retired from his jobs as a lathe operator and an English teacher, is one of only two of the original Korean War POWs still living in China. The others have moved back to the West or died.
Like the others, Veneris has been back to the U.S. several times without incident in the past 20 years, the passages smoothed by improving Sino-U.S. relations.
Veneris even delivers speeches on China to community and school groups in the U.S., and counts himself something of an ambassador between the two countries. He admires the United States' development, its beauty, its coffee and its cigarettes.
But China, in spite--or because--of the tumult of the last 50 years, is now his home, and will remain so if Veneris has his way.
"I intend to live another 50 years," he said. "See you then."