HONG KONG -- From his wood-paneled office on the 64th floor of the Hopewell Centre, billionaire Sir Gordon Wu looks out over the gleaming urban canyons of Hong Kong and sees a city awash in wealth.
Young, well-dressed Chinese professionals dash about chatting on cellular phones. Lexus cars, BMWs, Mercedes and Rolls-Royces fill the streets while merchant ships traverse the roiling, turquoise waters of Victoria Harbor. Shoppers browse in stores with names such as Tiffany, Gucci and Vuitton. The Hong Kong stock market is soaring. Housing prices are staggering.
Wu, a 61-year-old Princeton-trained engineer, complains that his property mid-way up the slopes of Victoria Peak is now probably worth more than $25 million. "If I were to buy it today, I couldn't afford it," he says.
This is the state of affairs in one of the world's most dynamic centers of capitalism with just a day left before it returns to the original owners. At midnight tomorrow, the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong will become the Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.
And despite all the signs of prosperity and confidence on the eve of the handover, there is some underlying uncertainty and a little fear in this bustling city of 6.3 million people.
Wu believes the transition will go smoothly, but he worries that democratic activists could provoke a crackdown and everything could change overnight.
"I believe the most dangerous moment for Hong Kong is the evening of June 30th," Wu says. "I don't think it's going to happen, but there are hotheads on both sides. "
Wu's anxieties mirror those of many in this British colony. While most say they are optimistic, no one quite knows what life will be like under China's red flag.
After the British lower the Union Jack on the harbor's banks just before midnight tomorrow and a military band strikes up "God Save the Queen" for the last time, Hong Kong will embark on one of the most unusual political experiments in recent history. Heading in the opposite direction of the end-of-century trend, a fledgling democracy will peacefully move into the grasp of a repressive dictatorship.
How this will work is anyone's guess.
What will the notoriously sensitive Chinese government do if Hong Kongers take to the streets to criticize its policies?
Can Hong Kong maintain its rule of law and freedom of information -- the keys to its modern economic success -- or will it be swamped by the mainland's culture of corruption?
The Chinese say yes to the first; they promise no to the second. The surging value of investments into Hong Kong and through Hong Kong to China seems to reflect confidence that the rules of business here will stay the same.
The principle behind this attempt at peaceful co-existence is called "One Country, Two Systems."
Leaders in China have promised Hong Kong "a high degree of autonomy" for 50 years.
They are replacing the territory's recently-elected legislature with one anointed by Beijing. The British have complained loudly about the dismantling of democratic institutions, but elections were only a recent development under British rule.
Many other things will not change. Except at the top, the bureaucrats on June 30 will be the same on July 1. Hong Kong policemen will walk the same beats with different badges.
Nor will the currency change. On Tuesday morning, two Hong Kong dollars and 20 cents will still buy you a seat on the upper deck of the Star Ferry.
English will remain an official language of the Special Administrative Region.
" 'One Country, Two Systems' is a totally new thing," says Rita Fan, head of the Beijing-backed legislature which has been meeting across the Chinese border in Shenzhen. "What is happening here has never happened before."
With Hong Kong's taste for excess, the handover is bound to be one of the more extravagant parties Asia has ever seen. The $13 million celebration will include a laser light show and a fireworks display over the harbor, as well as a two-mile-long neon dragon and a mass karaoke sing along.
Many Chinese here are happy to see Hong Kong returning to China after more than 150 years under British rule. Yet, each day's events underscore that this is no ordinary celebration.
Last week, the Royal Yacht Britannia cruised into the harbor on what will be its last major voyage. After the handover, Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten will board the ship and sail away.
On the same day Britannia arrived, the Chinese government announced it would send about 500 People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops across the border three hours before the handover. After midnight, they will be armed with rifles, sidearms and nearly 70,000 rounds of ammunition.