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Will WTO open the door

"Ever since foreign banks were able to open representative offices we were confident that the door would open wider and wider," says Samuel Lau, manager of HSBC's Beijing branch office. "But we never knew when or how far the door would open. [China's impending membership of] WTO establishes a Firm timetable which is important in terms of planning future resource allocation."

According to the broad terms of this timetable, within two years foreign banks in China will be allowed to oVer local-currency business services to corporates, while within Five years the oft-mentioned big prize of China's market of 1.3 billion individuals will be made accessible to international banks.

That may sound enticing enough and explain why so many international banks have already established - at the very least - representative offices in Beijing. But at Standard Chartered, another of the foreign banks that clearly has big, long-term plans for China, Beijing-based Rolf Berweger, head of corporate and institutional banking, is less optimistic about the potential for foreign banks with or without WTO. He bases this relative pessimism on two elements: First, on the track record of China's attitudes toward foreign banks; second, on the small print of the WTO documentation, which he says is not as accommodating toward foreign banks as outsiders assume.

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