While Hong Kong's streets are comfortingly safe - unless you happen to be a goldsmith or karaoke hostess - that does not mean the city is ignorant of crime. Just as the territory has made its wealth as a thriving entrepot of trade, so has it in recent years played a parallel role as convenient re-exporter of criminal activity. Narcotics, product piracy, credit card fraud and money laundering are the principal criminal areas in which Hong Kong's felons have often played a starring role, getting rich into the bargain. This has been of considerable concern to the United States, which as the world's main drugs consumer and credit card market has most to lose from the hard work of organised crime in Hong Kong - as elsewhere. Recent years have also seen a marked upswing in the activities of Asian gangs operating on US shores with links to Hong Kong partners in crime - such as the Fuk Ching, Wo Sing Wo and Flying Tigers. Although US agents, with close co-operation from their experienced colleagues in the territory, have in the past five years made considerable inroads into Asian crime, and have successfully prosecuted some of the top gang bosses in New York, San Francisco and Boston, many questions remain unanswered - notably in the context of the impending return of Hong Kong to the motherland where these secret societies first came into being. What will happen to the triads now operating in Hong Kong, law enforcers are asking; will they spread their wings into China and develop even more powerful criminal networks? Will they continue to export their violent crime to American streets? Will the territory's crime-busters still have the power to work as closely with their American counterparts? Judging by an important hearing in the US Senate last week, the answers depend very much on whether one works for the US Government or is elected by the US people. Administration officials queued up to deliver an upbeat, business-as-usual message on future co-operation with Hong Kong and China, while Senators sounded warning signals about the impending dangers. No one is more concerned about what the handover means for the US than Senator Joseph Biden, who is acting on his fears by pushing for a new law which would provide funding for up to 200 current or former Hong Kong policemen to work in the US. 'We've got a big, big problem,' said Senator Biden, citing the chronic lack of Chinese undercover police speaking the more obscure dialects used by some of the gangs carving out turf on American streets. The Senator was in part supported by a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official who testified that links between Chinese and Hong Kong criminal enterprises were likely to blossom, with a corresponding increase in their capacity to affect the US. Dr Roy Godson of Georgetown University, one of the country's top experts on organised crime, painted a scenario in which - in criminal terms at least - the territory would exert more influence over the mainland than vice versa. The sometimes-chaotic opening-up of China's own economy, in parallel with the infiltration of Hong Kong triad associations into the mainland, has seen some astounding figures come to light. Mainland experts have told Dr Godson that the number of members of organised crime associations mushroomed from an estimated 100,000 in 1986 to more than half a million in 1994. And in a brutally honest paper produced last year by Li Sunmao, a criminal investigator in the Public Security Bureau, he laid much of the blame on the increasing corruptibility of public officials - including the judiciary - in the Deng era. 'Because of the connivance and apathy of corrupted officials, organised crime is changing from small-scale to big-scale operations,' says Mr Li. The mainland official also cites the pressure of rural migration on the blossoming recruitment of criminal gangs. In the richer cities, 70 to 80 per cent of arrested criminals are now peasants from the countryside, says Mr Li. Dr Godson compares what happened in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union - and the then US administration's blind-eye attitude to it - to the potential explosion in exported crime from China. 'The executive branch says that everything is under control - but we got the same story about the breakup of Russia,' he said. The Biden plan to boost American law enforcement with Hong Kong police is a well-meaning idea, he said, but there were many pitfalls to address. Few people seem to think the territory's policemen will be tempted to uproot their family for an American agent's pay, and since most of them speak Cantonese, that would not go far in plugging the 'dialect deficit' in the FBI or Drug Enforcement Agency's undercover force. Much more crucial to protecting the US - and China - against a big rise in organised crime will be the continued ability of US agents to operate out of Hong Kong and even southern China, and maintaining their current links to Hong Kong counterparts. At present, American co-operation with Beijing is extremely patchy, largely due to Chinese suspicion of having US agents active on their soil. The go-ahead has still not been given to America's longstanding request for FBI and drug agents to open an office in Beijing. If China can give the green light, it could herald genuine progress.