China claims MI6 turned married government workers into spies in rare case

China has accused a married couple of spying for the British government in a rare instance of Beijing releasing details about alleged UK espionage.

China’s ministry of state security (MSS) claimed Mr Wang and his wife, Ms Zhou, both worked in “confidential” departments of a Chinese state agency, while on the payroll of MI6.

MSS claims Mr Wang was enticed into spying for the British government after studying in the UK in 2015 and had been befriended by security operatives posing as students where he was invited to dinners and tours arranged by Britain’s intelligence agency.

The operatives took “special care” of Mr Wang and used his “strong desire for money” to lure him into a part-time consulting opportunity, Beijing alleged. The ministry claimed that MI6 then decided “conditions were ripe” to offer Mr Wang more money to return to China to collect important information related to its government.

“Wang was initially hesitant but could not resist [the operatives’] repeated persuasion, enticement and even coercion, and eventually agreed,” the ministry said in a statement on WeChat.

The ministry said MI6 then offered Mr Wang double the money to convince his wife to spy for the UK government: “Under Wang’s strong instigation, Zhou agreed to collect intelligence… and he and his wife became British spies.”

MSS said it had gathered evidence and taken “decisive measures” against Mr Wang, and that the case against the alleged spies is under further investigation.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist at University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, told i: “The UK security agencies are active in China but they don’t seem to rely much on human intelligence – or else their operatives are extremely good, or the Chinese don’t announce their discoveries for counter-intelligence or other purposes because we almost never hear ‘UK spies uncovered’ stories coming out of China.”

“The last similar episode involved a Hong Kong worker at the UK consulate in Hong Kong and was arrested in China in 2019 – not for spying – but for purportedly participating in the big demonstrations in Hong Kong at that time.”

Several Western countries have accused Beijing of espionage amid a series of tit-for-tat claims, with German politicians linked to alleged Chinese spying in April and a French MEP saying in May that he had been the target of a Chinese espionage operation.

In April, Christopher Cash, a UK parliamentary researcher, and Christopher Berry, an academic, were charged with spying for China after allegedly providing information that could be “useful to an enemy”. They are accused of giving “articles, notes, documents or information” to a foreign state, the Met Police said, while China called the allegations “malicious slander.”

In May, a former Royal Marine, Matthew Trickett, who had been charged with helping Hong Kong to gather intelligence in the UK was found dead in unexplained circumstances.

In 2022, British security services issued an alert alleging that UK-based lawyer Christine Lee was engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of the Chinese state.

Dr Sullivan said the increase in cases of Chinese spying is “partly to do with the deterioration of bilateral relations with Beijing”.

“We are close to the Americans, with whom China is involved in a systemic rivalry and might possibly go to war with, if the Taiwan situation is not carefully managed. The UK is an open society and has all sorts of vulnerabilities that motivated actors have been able to take advantage of.

“We have got better as national security has become a more salient concern, and that might be why we are detecting more China-related espionage: not that China is increasing its activity, but we are getting better at finding it. I think it’s probably a combination of both more activity and more surveillance.”

The Foreign Office last month summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain the recent pattern of behaviour directed by China against the UK, including cyber attacks and reports of espionage links.

Experts say that in recent years China has used a variety of spying methods to entice Britons into spying on behalf of Beijing.

i revealed in April that British intelligence officials have been targeted in “honeytrap” plots as Chinese spies ramp up efforts to glean national secrets by means of seduction and blackmail.

Four of the sources detailed attempts made by individuals allegedly working for the Chinese state to befriend and engage in sexual relationships with them in an attempt to compromise intelligence.

In 2023, according to The Times, a Chinese spy had been scouring Linkedin trying to entice thousands of British officials to give them state secrets in exchange for thousands of pounds and lucrative business deals.

To counteract the threat of Chinese spying, UK government departments have also been ordered to remove Chinese-made surveillance cameras by 2025 on government premises. The announcement came shortly after China allegedly launched a cyber attack on the payroll system of the Ministry of Defence in May.

The Chinese government has previously denied spying activities in the UK, accusing the British government of reaching “a point of hysteria” with their “baseless slander”.