HONG KONG (AP) _ Shootouts, kidnappings, murders _ suddenly southern China is looking more like the Wild West than an investment hotspot.

A spate of violent crime against businesspeople in south China has shaken Hong Kong investors whose financial clout provides the heartbeat for the region's boom.

Their fears have created growing business for Hong Kong security firms that offer bodyguards.

Chinese police say crimes against foreign investors are rare. But Hong Kong's sensitivity to crime in China is heightened by fears that the British colony's return to Chinese rule in 1997 will bring crime with it.

Certainly, millions of people every year ride the regular bus, train and plane services linking Hong Kong to neighboring China, and many return with business deals, holiday photos or, at worst, a bout of diarrhea.

But it's those that don't return safely, such as Hong Kong industrialist Shum Ka-yan, who grab newspaper headlines.

Shum disappeared June 27 in neighboring Guangdong province, where he ran a shoe factory. His dismembered body was discovered by a road, along with the body of his secretary, who had gone to deliver an $102,000 ransom.

Days earlier, gunmen snatched a Chinese businessman from a golf club in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong. Hong Kong newspapers said the son of a Chinese leader ordered the kidnapping because of a dispute over money.

Then, in early July, Guangdong police fired automatic weapons and tear gas in gun battles with a gang holding two real estate firm employees. A hostage, a police officer and three kidnappers died.

Hong Kong security experts say they believe other kidnappings go unreported. One newspaper said it has learned of more than 70 kidnappings of Hong Kong and Taiwan businesspeople in China this year.

Guangdong's boom has attracted an army of laborers from poorer inland regions who seek a slice of the wealth that has made limousines, cellular phones, and other luxuries common in the province.

Many of these migrants find jobs. But others turn to crime to fulfill the Communist Party's maxim that ``To get rich is glorious.''

``They are all trying to make as much money as they can,'' said Nick Duder, a former member of Hong Kong's counter-terrorist police who works for a company providing bodyguards for $400 to $1,000 a day.

``Hong Kong businessmen are prime targets because they tend to flash their wealth about a bit. They are perceived to be rich because they come from Hong Kong,'' Duder said in an interview.

Kenneth Yeng, 31, travels about once a month to China to sell air filters and believes kidnappers mainly target factory owners and wealthy businessmen. Nevertheless, he said, the recent violence has made him ``try to go out less at night, stay in the hotel'' during his visits.

``Some of my colleagues have shortened their trips'' to China, said Francis Sze, a production manager for razor-makers, Gillette.

Sze added that when he crosses the border, ``I don't take taxis because you go on a highway where a lot of kidnappings happened.''

And not all those kidnapped are investors or on business.

Leung Sek-wah, an air conditioning contractor, was kidnapped July 19 while visiting a girlfriend in Shenzhen. His kidnappers were a gang which ``just pick up any Hong Kong people,'' said Chief Inspector Winky Wong of the Hong Kong police.

Shenzhen police rescued Leung two days later and arrested the gang which had demanded a $129,533 ransom.

Apparently to ease fears of crime, Chinese authorities are beefing up security. Shenzhen Mayor Li Zibin has promised an extra 3,000 officers for the city's police force and Chinese and Hong Kong police will soon be linked by computer to swap information.

With 60,000 officers spread over a province a little smaller than the American state of Nebraska, but with 40 times as many people, Guangdong police are hard pressed to protect all investors. They also say crime is an inevitable by-product of the province's rush for growth.

``I don't think it's strange. As society develops, crime has increased. It's the same in New York and in Hong Kong itself,'' said police spokesman He Weihe.