A senior Chinese official assured Hong Kong business leaders Friday the British colony will remain an "oasis" of free trade after it returns to communist China in 1997.

In a soothing speech to the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the director of China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Lu Ping, pledged to do his best to ensure the territory remains prosperous after the transition."I know and you know that a prosperous Hong Kong means a prosperous China," he said. "So I promise that I will do everything possible to continue an environment where you all can continue to be successful."

Despite China's pledge to let Hong Kong keep its free-wheeling capitalist system for 50 years after the transition, nearly half the multinational firms based in the colony say they are considering pulling out before 1997.