Yeltsin visit is set to expunge Peking's shame: China and Russia do not like each other but they want to do business, Andrew Higgins writes from Moscow

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AMONG the most dedicated observers of the Congress of People's Deputies over the past fortnight have been the Moscow correspondents of China's official news agency, Xinhua. Every day they prowled the corridors of the Great Kremlin Palace, scribbling notes on every twist and turn of President Boris Yeltsin's showdown with conservative MPs.

Little of what they wrote made it to their news agency's wire. Boisterous debate is a subject deemed unfit for public consumption inside China. Xinhua's labours, though, were not wasted: their reports ended up in internal bulletins for China's leaders.

This split between what China thinks privately and does publicly is a useful device. And it will be particularly useful today, when President Yeltsin, the man who killed off Bolshevism in Russia, arrives in Peking to shake hands in Communism's last major bastion.

Chinese leaders do not like Mr Yeltsin. They did not like Mikhail Gorbachev either. The distaste is mutual. Moscow knows that China was one of the few countries to express delight - at least in internal documents - at news of last year's hardline putsch. Both sides, though, want to do business, mindful of how the deep personal animosity between Mao Tse-tung and Nikita Khrushchev led them to the brink of war in the 1960s. Today, they trade rather than fight along a common border 2,500 miles long. 'Relations are free of ideological overtones,' says Mikhail Bely, director of Asian affairs at the Russian Foreign Ministry. 'We have no problems which put us on the opposite sides of the barricades.'

The last Kremlin leader to visit Peking was Mr Gorbachev in May 1989. The visit was not a success. Students encamped in Tiananmen Square made a welcoming ceremony impossible and forced Mr Gorbachev's limousine to pick its way through Peking's back streets. The one Chinese leader with whom Mr Gorbachev got on well, the party boss Zhao Ziyang, was placed under house arrest within days of their meeting and later stripped of his post.

For China, Mr Yeltsin's arrival is an opportunity to bury the humiliation of 1989. This time it is the Kremlin that is in turmoil. Peking will keep its feelings to itself but will be delighted at the news from Moscow, particularly the replacement of Yegor Gaidar by Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister. A cautious energy bureaucrat, Mr Chernomyrdin is similar in background and temperament to China's own Premier, Li Peng.

When Mr Gorbachev visited Peking, many Chinese, particularly the students in Tiananmen, chanted his name and urged their own leaders to copy his policies. The tables have turned: many Russians now look to China. Peking's combination of authoritarian rule and dazzling economic growth is admired by the conservatives who triumphed at the Congress of People's Deputies. Arkady Volsky, the most public spokesman for Russia's military industrial complex, regularly praises the 'Chinese model'. Even liberals appalled by China's political repression admire its economic success. While industrial output in Russia fell by over 20 per cent this year, in China it rose by the same amount.

Mr Yeltsin will pay tribute to these achievements. After two days in Peking signing a slew of accords on economic, nuclear and cultural co-operation, he travels to Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong, one of five special economic zones that have generated much of China's growth for the past decade. With Moscow's economic direction still unclear, Russian officials are unsure about how much China can teach them: 'We have entered another road and it would have been absurd for us to follow the Chinese way,' says Mr Bely. But he adds: 'Shenzhen is a model for us to emulate.'

It is the huge difference between China and Russia, however, that bonds them. Both need what the other has, encouraging a trade worth more than pounds 3bn this year.

'How can we help it if we make better aircraft than trousers?' lamented Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. China has already bought 24 Su-27 fighter planes and is interested in submarines, tanks and possibly an aircraft carrier. It is also intrigued by a Russian equivalent of the American Patriot missile.

China, in return, provides much of the clothing Russia is unable to produce. Little cash changes hands. China is reported to have paid for all but 35 per cent of the Su-27 aircraft price tag with crates of down jackets, sneakers and tinned stew. A deal last month for Soviet satellite parts was paid largely in consumer goods. This suits both sides - and is proof, after decades of ideological bickering, of Peking's pragmatism and Moscow's desperation.