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British Intelligence MI6 Accused of Recruiting Chinese Couple as Spies: Report

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: June 3, 2024
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUG. 17: A man walks over Vauxhall Bridge towards the MI6 headquarters on Aug. 17, 2018 in London, England. China has published a spoof video targeting the UK's MI6 intelligence agency.
A man walks over Vauxhall Bridge towards the MI6 headquarters on Aug. 17, 2018 in London, England. China has published a spoof video targeting the UK's MI6 intelligence agency. (Image: Dan Kitwood via Getty Images)

In an intensifying wave of espionage allegations, China has arrested a married couple accused of spying for the U.K. The Chinese Ministry of State Security announced on Monday (June 3) that the couple, both Chinese citizens, were recruited by the British intelligence agency MI6.

The man, identified only by the surname Wang, was allegedly courted by British intelligence operatives beginning in 2015 while he was studying in England. During his time abroad, MI6 agents reportedly took advantage of Wang’s “strong desire for money” by inviting him to numerous dinners and events, offering security, and by employing persistent persuasion and coercion tactics until he finally agreed to collaborate.

Wang, who initially hesitated, eventually succumbed to the operatives’ advances. Later on, he convinced his wife, identified only by her surname Zhou, to join him in collecting intelligence for the British. The Ministry of State Security claims both worked in “core” confidential departments within a Chinese state agency, though specific details about their roles remain undisclosed.

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“Wang was initially hesitant but could not resist [the operatives’] repeated persuasion, enticement and even coercion, and eventually agreed,” China’s state ministry said in a statement on WeChat (a popular social media and messaging app in China).

“Under Wang’s strong instigation, Zhou agreed to collect intelligence… and he and his wife became British spies,” the ministry added. 

Heightened tensions

The case represents the latest in a series of high-level espionage accusations exchanged between China and the U.K. Earlier this year, Beijing revealed another espionage plot allegedly involving MI6 that implicated several Chinese citizens working within key industries. The Ministry of State Security’s statement emphasized the ongoing investigation and the broader implications of such espionage activities on national security.

According to Chinese authorities, these individuals were recruited under the guise of professional networking and academic collaborations, only to later provide sensitive information to British operatives. 

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The arrests of Wang and Zhou come on the heels of several recent espionage-related incidents. In January, China announced it had uncovered a spy plot linked to MI6. Just a few months later, in April, the UK charged two British nationals with providing classified information to Beijing — an act that violated the Official Secrets Act between late 2021 and February 2023.

On the same day, Germany reported arresting three nationals for allegedly “transferring technologies with potential military applications” to Chinese intelligence. The following day, Germany arrested an aide to a far-right member of the European Parliament on suspicion of spying for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Last month, Britain also charged three men with collecting sensitive information for Hong Kong’s intelligence services. One of these men, 37-year-old Briton Matthew Trickett, was later found dead under unexplained and “potentially suspicious” circumstances. 

Recruitment and downfall

China’s Ministry of State Security has provided a detailed account of how Wang was recruited. According to their report, MI6 operatives meticulously identified and exploited Wang’s vulnerabilities while he was studying in the U.K. under a Sino-British exchange program. The agents allegedly befriended him under the guise of being alumni by offering paid consulting services and gradually gaining his trust.

The operatives’ persistence paid off as Wang, despite initial hesitations, eventually agreed to work for MI6. Under Wang’s strong encouragement, his wife Zhou also joined the espionage effort, with both becoming deeply involved in intelligence activities for the U.K. 

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Though the CCP has not disclosed the specific methods used to uncover the espionage activities of Wang and Zhou, it said that a “thorough investigation” was underway. But experts also note that China’s opacity around the case is consistent with its handling of sensitive issues pertaining to national security, making it challenging to verify details.

According to Chong Ja-Ian, a scholar at Carnegie China, the case might be a form of retaliation against the U.K. amid the broader espionage accusations. Alternatively, it could be part of a broader strategy by Beijing to heighten awareness and caution among its citizens regarding foreign intelligence threats.

“Sometimes these do not appear… The opacity of [the Chinese Communist Party] including its judicial system, especially when it comes to espionage cases, can make understanding the details of the case especially challenging,” said Chong. 

The future of Sino-British relations

China’s Ministry of State Security has been increasingly vocal in its warnings against espionage. Since launching its official channel in August, the ministry has issued various advisories, including cautioning citizens against being seduced by “exotic beauties” used by foreign spy agencies, and warning against organizations recruiting aviation enthusiasts to transmit flight data abroad.

As the investigation into Wang and Zhou’s alleged espionage continues, the case underscores the complex and often adversarial nature of international intelligence operations between the world’s top powers.

Meanwhile, the U.K. has refused to confirm or deny any claims related to the pair and their involvement with MI6.