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Security Becomes Major Concern as Hong Kong Prepares for WTO Meeting - 2004-08-04

Now that the World Trade Organization has trade talks back on track, Hong Kong is kick-starting preparations for the group's Sixth Ministerial Conference next year. The city already is busy arranging everything from security to deluxe hotel rooms. The World Trade Organization conference is expected to draw more than 10,000 people, including government leaders, businessmen, journalists and official WTO delegates.

The chief economist for the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, David O'Rear, says Hong Kong is up to the challenge.

"We're fit, we're tan, we're ready to go," he said.

Mr. O'Rear says the city has years of experience handling major international trade shows and conferences. He points out the 1997 ceremonies when Britain returned the city to Chinese control. Dozens of world leaders and thousands of journalists and tourists were in town for the event, which went off with out any major problems.

The Hong Kong WTO conference will be in December 2005. A small coordinating committee has already been organized, with 10 members but in 16 months, more than 1,000 people will be working full-time on the event. Thousands more, including police officers and other civil servants, will be involved part-time.

Lee Kam Chung, who works for Hong Kong's Trade and Industry Department, will be in charge of logistics. He says one of the first tests will be finding enough five-star hotel rooms for the dignitaries attending the conference.

"But with the assistance of the Hong Kong Hotel Association and Tourism board we are confident we can solve that problem," he said.

Security is another major concern. The last WTO conference, in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, attracted thousands of protesters critical of the group's policies. And a WTO conference in Seattle in 1999 nearly collapsed after anti-globalization protesters disrupted talks.

Mr. Chung says Hong Kong's police department will make sure the conference is safe but also protect the protesters' right to demonstrate.

"They have been making preparations for over a year. They have been to Cancun and have been to the United States to learn," he noted.

The WTO just completed hotly contested negotiations between rich and poor countries focused on agricultural trade policy.

Next year's conference is expected to revisit the issue. Delegates will consider ways to promote free trade while also protecting fragile economies in the developing world.

Mr. O'Rear at the Chamber of Commerce says Hong Kong is perfectly suited to host those discussions.

"Hong Kong has always been a very, very strong advocate of fewer restrictions on trade, particularly trade and services, we are the most international city in the world?so we live and die with the world trade structure," he said.

The WTO was established in 1995 to foster international commerce and has 147 member countries.