McRae is justifiably favourite in his Ford Focus since he is the only leading driver with experience of an event that has been added to the world championship this season. He won the two previous China Rallies, albeit against modest opposition.
However, the Scotsman's form, scarcely helped by technical problems that have sabotaged his car, has been called into question of late and his title aspirations, raised by victories early in the year in Kenya and Portugal, have all but collapsed.
Burns, by contrast, has grown in confidence and stature as his Subaru Impreza has been improved in performance and reliability. The Englishman goes into the final four rounds of the championship in fifth place, six points clear of McRae. He is still 19 points adrift of the leader, Mitsubishi's triple champion, Tommi Makinen, yet considers himself a genuine contender for this year's title. That, in itself, is a measure of his self-belief. So, too, is his declaration that he is no longer the "other Brit" of world rallying. He feels he is, at worst, the equal of the much-vaunted McRae.
That claim is given credibility by his display at the last rally, in Finland, where he was second only to his team-mate, Juha Kankkunen, who happened to be driving virtually on his doorstep. Nowhere is local knowledge and experience more valuable than on the event long known as the 1,000 Lakes and McRae was palpably intimidated by the infamous jumps.
By contrast Burns, competing on the rally for only the second time, was positive and aggressive from the start, earning not only a place on the podium but also rave reviews from within the sport. He is similarly determined to adopt an optimistic approach in China.
"At the moment I'm so confident," Burns said. "I'm making very accurate pace notes, I believe in them completely, and the car is very competitive. It is also part psychological. Colin was competitive on a couple of later stages in Finland but, like a lot of people, he thought that because he'd never won there it was impossible to do so.
"I don't think that's true of any rally. There's nothing to say the foreign drivers can't drive as fast as Colin or me in Britain, but they don't. They have a psychological block. If you go in with a positive attitude you can do it. You have to tell yourself: `it's a road, you're driving a car, you can go as fast as anyone else'.
"Colin's been struck a bit by a lack of reliability but in Finland, for instance, he was not one of the people I was worried about. I do now feel I have come out of his shadow.
"I accept I have been in his shadow but then I've also been five years down the line in terms of experience, and that has been perhaps the most difficult thing to explain to people.
"It seemed they expected me to come straight into the world championship and just be up there, with Colin. But this is only my second year in the championship, while Colin has been in it since 1993. In fact he did some rallies in 1992.
"Colin won the championship in his third full year and that will definitely be my target next year. I'm still going to try for it this year, though. I certainly don't feel it's out of the question."
Burns took over at Subaru when McRae moved to Ford on a two-year contract worth pounds 6m. Many felt that David Richards' Prodrive operation would lose momentum without their protege and the evidence of the early season appeared to prove the case. Then the team came first and second in Argentina, Kankkunen controversially overtaking Burns on the final stage. The Englishman confirmed Subaru's revival and his potential with victory next time out, on the Acropolis. Another 1-2 in Finland was emphatic. Burns said: "People were saying Subaru were finished after the early rallies but I maintained all along that the problem wasn't that we weren't competitive or not driving quickly, we just had specific problems on each of the events and that cost us points.
"I was not worried because I knew Juha and I would be able to identify the problems and the areas where we could improve. We've done that and the team have made the improvements. They've done a hell of a lot of work.
"The team have improved the suspension, gearbox and other things on the car, and Pirelli have worked equally hard on the tyres since the beginning of the season. The whole driver-car package is now very strong.
"Juha's been good to have alongside. He's very experienced and won more rallies than any other driver. But I think I've perhaps been good for him, also, and helped give him a new lease of life. He doesn't want to be beaten by a young English driver. That, in turn, is good for the team.
"At this stage of my career I can't think about emulating him. I just want to win rallies. If I can do that then the championships will follow."