China feels `comfortable' with win for Boris Yeltsin

Chinese officials say the government in Peking would feel more comfortable if Boris Yeltsin, the apostate Communist, remains in the Kremlin, than if he is replaced by a Communist true believer.

The Chinese privately emphasise they do not want Mr Yeltsin's Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, to edge the Russian leader out in Sunday's presidential election. Officials said: "We are more familiar with Boris Yeltsin, and we have good relations. His visit to Peking went well. Zyuganov is unknown, for us. We don't know what he might do."

A paradox is thus created where a hardline Communist government explicitly stakes its money on a non-Communist politician against a Communist. Mr Yeltsin is no stranger to the vagaries of pragmatic politics: he was in the Communist Party for years and was a Politburo member until he quarrelled with Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Communist Party leader.

The Chinese have always been pragmatic their dealings with foreign leaders. They scorn Mr Yeltsin's economics, arguing that their own version of the economic revolution has been much more successful than Russia's chaotic and mafia-dominated rush towards the market. But they like the fact that Mr Yeltsin does not seek to lecture them on how they should conduct their affairs. Both sides are keen to leave human rights (the Tiananmen massacre, on the one hand, and the war in Chechnya, on the other) out of any discussions. For both sides, business merely means business.

For the Russian Communists, the Chinese rebuff is none the less embarrassing. Mr Zyuganov and his Communist-nationalist coalition cite China as a country which has modernised its economy, attracting plenty of investment without bringing about the collapse of Communism. His senior aides, who hanker after the restoration of the Soviet Union, tend to quote the Chinese as an example of how a country can evolve slowly away from Marxist-Leninism, and still keep its basic structures intact.

That China has a rigid one-party system and a dismal human-rights record does not appear to alarm them. But they will not like the fact that their Peking counterparts have far less faith in them than they do in the Chinese, not least because they are trying to convince a highly sceptical outside world that they understand something about economics.

Chinese officials share the assessment of many Western observers of the election, that Mr Zyuganov could win the first round but that Mr Yeltsin is the favourite for the run-off three weeks later.