China’s escalating suspicions directed at foreign consultants has hit new heights, with the nation’s government having detain an advisor on allegations of spying. Chinese security officials claim that the unnamed professional was working for the British spy agency, MI6.
The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is the principal civilian intelligence, security and secret police agency of China. It is responsible for the nation’s foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and the political security of the Chinese Communist Party.
At the start of 2024, the MSS claimed that it had detained a foreign agent, who it named only as “Huang”. The agency did not release details around Huang’s full name, gender or nationality. However, the agency did note that the foreign national was the head of an overseas consulting firm – and stated that the foreign power they had allegedly been spying for was the UK.
According to the claims of MSS, Huang started working with MI6 – the UK ministry which deals with current affairs overseas, often referred to as secret intelligence service – in 2015. Huang is alleged to have taken on intelligence matters for MI6, with the British agency directing Huang to travel to China multiple times to collect intelligence, while identifying potential assets for it.
Throughout this supposed relationship, the MSS also asserted that MI6 had provided Huang with training, as well as professional spying equipment, for the exchange of intelligence and communications. It added that this had enabled Huang to provide MI6 with 17 pieces of intelligence, including several “national secrets.”
In accordance with the law, the MSS said Huang had been given access to consular visits from their home country throughout the investigation. The British government has not commented on the claims.
While it has not been confirmed which consulting firm Huang was heading up in China, the news comes at a time when tensions between the country and foreign advisory firms is spiralling. In March 2023, China’s state ramped up a clampdown on the world’s largest accounting and consulting firms, with the country’s finance ministry issuing Deloitte with a massive fine, and barring it from operating in Beijing for three months.
Meanwhile, in April, media reports suggested that China’s police had made an unannounced visit to Bain & Company’s office in Shanghai. On that occasion, officers were understood to have removed computers and phones from the firm’s office in the Chinese financial hub. Two weeks later, police visited the Shanghai office once again, to question employees.
Exactly what is fuelling this rising suspicion remains unclear. However, many of the world’s largest consulting firms have long and close relationships with the defence communities of the Western world’s key actors. KPMG for example, is regularly contracted by the Australian defence department, as does McKinsey & Company – which has also been awarded upwards of $940 million worth of federal contracts by the US department of defense. Meanwhile, IT strategists such as CGI and PA Consulting regularly link up with the UK’s MoD. With these links in mind, it could be the case that China’s authorities increasingly see foreign consultants as tied to state actors who they see as hostile.