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Chinese are given a glimpse of the forbidden city of HK

A lengthening queue, and rumours that tickets had been sold out, had made the waiting Chinese anxious. So when a tout appeared, she was was almost knocked over as punters tried to elbow through to her.

Was this a Chinese national football match about to start, or a rush for New Year train tickets? No, it was the hot show on offer this Easter weekend in Peking, "The Hong Kong Fair: Greeting the Return of the Territory to China", a four-day exhibition designed to introduce the history, culture and companies to an eager mainland audience.

Hong Kong's reunification with the motherland is 92 days away, so a Pekinger's thoughts turn to the prospect of visiting China's new possession after the handover.

But after 1 July Chinese will find it just as difficult as ever to get permits to visit. So the weekend offered the next best thing: Hong Kong came to China, with exhibits on everything from food to Jackie Chan films, to models of the new airport railway. When the exhibition opened on Friday, there was near-pandemonium as the thousands with tickets fought to get into Peking's World Trade Centre hall.

The Chinese and Hong Kong governments agreed that a permit system will operate after 1 July for mainland tourists and businessmen. At least that is the theory. But most Chinese are still unaware the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is supposed to be just as off-limits to mainlanders as it was as a British colony.

Dai Dongsheng, an undergraduate at the Peking Institute of Technology, said: "I believe after the return ... the policy of Hong Kong will be quite open and it will be easy to go there." He will work in Shenzhen, just across the border and had come "to find out more about what it is like in Hong Kong".

China has only just started to educate people about how inalienable sovereignty is one thing but freedom to explore Hong Kong is another. Those aware of some restrictions are generally confident they will qualify. Peng Kan, 21, training to be a government official, said: "Yes, I should be able to go. I think I have the qualifications to go there but that does not mean anyone can go there freely." After this weekend's show, more people than ever will probably want to try.

Mainland views vary about their Hong Kong compatriots. Qi Xiaodong, 37, who works for the Technical Association of the Paper Industry, had just returned from a month visiting relatives. "The environment ... is different, so the concepts of Hong Kong people are also different. For example, the way they deal with other people; on the Hong Kong buses, no one will give up a seat to the elderly or a lady." What else had he noticed?

"The Hong Kong newspapers are all quite open. You can have free speech. Most reports are quite objective, but there are also some biased reports."

The more regimented habits of mainlanders were in evidence along a downstairs corridor, where a banner from the Henan Teachers University, brought to Peking last summer, was hanging for people to add their signatures and messages to the 10,000 names already there. It read: "Welcome the Return of Hong Kong, Create a Splendid Future".

Visitors had pens at the ready to add their names to the crowded canvas. Not a joke nor any graffiti was there to be seen.