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Foreign passport, who needs one?

Next year's IMF/World Bank meeting will be held in Hong Kong, by then three months into Chinese communist rule. What will delegates find: a thriving boom town or a ghost of its former self? Confused local opinion suggests things could go either way. To get a view from the top, Steven Irvine sounded out more than 30 of Hong Kong's tycoons, politicians and bankers, and drew some far-reaching conclusions

By July 1 next year Hong Kongers who have the means will have bought insurance policies called foreign passports. A government source reckons close to a million already have them and could leave tomorrow. Over the coming months there will be no shortage. The prime minister of Tonga in the South Pacific wants to sell 7,000 passports at around US$20,000 apiece before the transfer of sovereignty. He is even sending over his police force to organize the sales.

Under the joint declaration signed by the UK and China in 1984, Hong Kong will become an "inalienable" part of China on July 1. However, under Deng Xiaoping's one-country, two-systems model, it will be governed autonomously under a capitalist system with supposedly minimal interference from Beijing. This has produced an atmosphere of hope mixed with trepidation. Henry Tang, the outwardly positive chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industry (his own company, Peninsula Knitters, employs 12,000), frankly admits: "One country, two systems looks great on paper. I've never seen it done anywhere else in the world."

Will Hong Kongers need those passports? There are two versions of the future that visitors to Hong Kong hear or read about: the optimistic and the pessimistic.

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