Russian relations

Mark O'Neill

Wang Nan stands at the door of his shop selling woollen gloves, staring at a streetside advertisement of a heavily made-up Russian model with nothing on but a down jacket and the caption, 'Snow Image - warming the whole world'.

'Doing business with the Russians is ok, but some do not pay. They buy in bulk, shipping it by plane or train back home. It is curious - they can make tanks and fighter planes but not woollen gloves,' said Mr Wang in the thick accent of his native Wenzhou, in southeast China.

'How things have changed. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union was the big brother and we had to learn from him. Now they come to buy everything from us. We are the big brother now,' he said.

Mr Wang summed up the feelings of many Chinese during the visit last week of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country was the model followed by the communists when they took power in 1949 but whose gross domestic product is now a fifth of China's.

From being a superpower which considered an attack on China in the 1960s to prevent it acquiring nuclear weapons, Russia has become groups of traders bickering over the price of fur coats and winter boots.

Mr Wang's shop is in Ya Ba Lu, a road that caters mostly to Russian buyers. Down the street is another example of Chinese wealth and Russian poverty, the Hollywood nightclub, where Russian - and Mongolian - women offer their services every evening, for a price only slightly higher than their Chinese sisters.

Mr Putin was highly conscious of this new reality in everything he said during his two-day visit.

'In a very short time, the relationship between our two countries has undergone a profound change. We've walked down a long road together,' he told students at Beijing University on Tuesday. 'We are not only good neighbours, we are also equal partners who respect each other's interests.'

He was proud to say that both his daughters were studying the martial art wushu and one, aged 16, was learning Chinese.

What a different world from December 1949, when Mao Zedong arrived in Moscow to report to Josef Stalin on the victory of communism in the world's most populous country.

Stalin forced him to wait for several days in a guest house, where he had to watch films on the Georgian's achievements, and then made him sign a treaty in which he gave up his claim to Mongolia - which Mao had said several times belonged to China.