Jiang travels hopefully to Russia

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The Independent Online
CHINA's Communist Party chief and President, Jiang Zemin, arrived yesterday in Moscow, the city which helped launch his career in the Fifties with a stint at the Zil auto-plant. Mr Jiang hopes his return will burnish his claim to the ultimate prize: the succession to 90- year-old Deng Xiaoping.

It is the first visit to Moscow by a Chinese head of state since Mao Tse-tung's in 1957. Mr Jiang last visited, as party general secretary, in May 1991, seven months before the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russian Communism.

With the end of three decades of rivalry for leadership of the now defunct international Communist movement, trade has replaced confrontation along the 2,630- mile Sino-Russian border (the world's longest). But, with nationalism increasingly part of the Russian mainstream and a key component of any future power struggle in China, a wariness of each other's long- term intentions lingers.

Politicians and prominent public figures such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn now voice deep anxiety about Russia's Far East, where a population of only 8 million face 96 million Chinese in the three provinces of China's north- east. Military forces have pulled back but not those of demography.

From 1983 to 1993, the value of Heilongjiang province's official barter trade with Russia went up 200-fold. More than 3,000 joint ventures were set up. In 1993, overall trade between China and Russia increased by nearly a third to dollars 7.7bn ( pounds 5.1bn). But bilateral trade collapsed by 39 per cent in the first half of this year.

Mr Jiang, who like much of the current Chinese leadership began his climb through the party bureaucracy with his training in Russia, will sign an agreement over a disputed part of the border. Still unresolved, though, is the fate of two islands near Khabarovsk on the Amur and a third on the Ussuri River.

Even at the height of their friendship immediately after China's revolution, deep suspicion lurked just beneath the surface. When Mao visited Moscow for the first time in the winter of 1949, he was left to kick his heels in a guarded dacha for so long that a London paper reported that Stalin had placed him under arrest.

Mr Jiang's visit, the first leg of a trip that will also take him to Ukraine and France, is widely seen in Moscow as having more to do with domestic Chinese politics than relations between Russia and China, normalised when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Peking in May 1989.

'It is important for Jiang to be in Russia, to be seen abroad,' said Alexei Voskressensky, a Sino-Russian relations expert at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies. 'The trip is part of his political struggle in China. It will help add to his authority.'

Mr Jiang enjoys an important edge on his travels abroad over the Prime Minister, Li Peng, his likely rival for authority after Mr Deng's death. He rarely encounters the small but embarrassing protests that often greet Mr Li because of his role as chief spokesman for the assault on Tiananmen Square.