BEIJING secretly promised Britain a 'great role' in post-1997 Hong Kong, former British foreign secretary Lord Howe reveals in his memoirs. The pledge, which is sharply at odds with China's public stance that London should not interfere in the territory's affairs, emerges in an exclusive extract published in today's Sunday Morning Post. Lord Howe says the startling promise was made during a crucial meeting with his Chinese counterpart, the then foreign minister Wu Xueqian, at the United Nations a decade ago, and Zhou Nan, now head of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua (the New China News Agency). 'Wu stressed a surprising aspect of their case - that Britain 'would be able to play a great role' in the post-1997 Hong Kong, if only it could accept that administration too should revert to China,' he writes in his Conflict of Loyalty, to be published by Macmillan London on Friday. Former British foreign affairs adviser Sir Percy Cradock last night confirmed the secret pledge was made at the September 1983 meeting in New York, but said it 'played no great part' in the subsequent negotiation of the Joint Declaration, and was never again repeated by Beijing. China's consistent public position has been Britain's role in Hong Kong would come to an end in 1997. The memoirs also reveal Beijing's final concession during the Joint Declaration negotiations was a last-minute promise the post-1997 Legislative Council should be 'constituted by elections'. Lord Howe says the pledge, which Governor Chris Patten has repeatedly used to justify his political reforms, was only made in a mid-September 1984 telegram. The Joint Declaration was agreed by the two Governments just a few days later. He describes Mr Zhou as 'highly ambitious and more than ready to do his master's ruthless bidding. It became easy to recall that he cut his teeth as interrogator of Allied prisoners during the Korean war.' 'Hong Kong negotiations without Zhou Nan,' Lord Howe recounts saying at a subsequent dinner, 'would be like a Chinese banquet without mao-tai .' 'Tell me, Sir Geoffrey,' Zhou is reported as responding, 'did you ever find mao-tai too strong for you?'