Will Gmail be permanently blocked in China?

Gmail has been blocked in China from time to time in the recent days. GreatFirewall.biz monitors Gmail access every day. Here are some thoughts on why this is happening.

Why is Gmail access important in China?

Facebook.com, Blogspot.com and Twitter.com are all blocked in China (check out Top Sites). Chinese equivalents Renren, Weibo etc as well as all local email providers are all screened for sensitive keywords. Gmail, together with LinkedIn.com (recently blocked, then unblocked), provide important exceptions to this otherwise compact control of online activity in mainland China. Because connections are encrypted (the address starts with https://) the Great Firewall cannot know what users are writing about. If the authorities don't accept this, they can do two things: 1) Hack individual accounts. They've been accused of doing this on several occasions, eg on Jan, 2010 and March, 2011. 2) Close down the service altogether, an idea which they seem to be playing with now.

How many people use Gmail in China?

Google has a lot of competition in China. Baidu, QQ, Sina and 163.com are all more visited than Google.com (according to Alexa). They probably all have more mail users than Gmail too. I've been unable to find any sources of how many Gmail users there are in China. However, two reasons suggest they are plenty: 1) According to Alexa, Google.com comes in at 7th place of the most visited websites in China. However, most of the search is done on Google.com.hk (typing in google.com in China redirects here by default). This means that a big chunk, perhaps most, of the traffic to google.com in China is done to access Gmail. 2) According to my own little study. I looked at 31 Chinese people in my address book and came up with the following result. This is by no means accurate, but still an indication:

Other (Chinese) provider26%

If you have any better sources of the number of Gmail users in China, please comment.

Why hasn't Gmail been blocked already?

Facebook, Youtube, Twitter etc are all blocked so why not Gmail? One theory which I've heard many times is that important people use the service themselves. If you believe in the idea of reformist vs conservative factions inside the government, access to Gmail is probably an issue that is debated from time to time. The outages in the last few days suggest that the Gmail defenders might be losing influence.

What will happen if it's blocked?

While Facebook, Youtube, Twitter etc are major websites outside of China, they were never widely used here, and Chinese copycat websites have sprung up to replace them. If Gmail is blocked, shifting to another provider is more difficult - you have to change your email address, and you lose all your old messages and contacts. Will there be some sort of protest if it's blocked? Time will tell.


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Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org now testing VPN speed and stability in China

There is a commonly held belief in China that if you have a VPN that works then you should keep quiet about it. In terms of freedom of access to information, the problem with this approach is that access to knowledge suddenly is a secret. Today we are launching a project that we hope will destroy that model.

Our newest website, Circumvention Central (CC), aims to provide real-time information and data about circumvention solutions that work in China. Since 2011, we have been collecting data about blocked websites in China and now we will add data about the effectiveness of VPNs and other circumvention tools.

We are launching CC with four main objectives in mind.

Our first objective is to help to grow the number of Chinese who circumvent censorship restrictions in China. By sharing our information and data about these tools, we hope to show a wider audience which circumvention tools are working.

Our second objective is to improve the circumvention experience for users in China by bringing transparency to tool performance. We will measure these tools on speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and on stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

Sat, May 07, 2016

The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?

Thu, Feb 18, 2016

From the desk of Lu Wei: Apple, encryption and China

Lu Wei, Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, offers some friendly help to FBI Director James Comey.

Thu, Sep 24, 2015

Apple blocked CNNIC CA months after MITM attacks

In March of this year, Google found unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains. The root certificate authority for these domains was the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). CNNIC was controlled by the Chinese government through the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and is now under the management of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). CNNIC was recognized by all major browsers as a trusted Certificate Authority. If CNNIC signs a fake certificate used in a man-in-the-middle attack, no browser will warn of any unusual activity unless the certificate is pinned.

After Google found these unauthorized certificates, both Google and Firefox revoked its trust in CNNIC a few days later, a development we at GreatFire.org have adovacting for since 2013. Apple and Microsoft on the other hand, did not revoke their trust in CNNIC, nor did they make any announcements regarding the security compromise.

Wed, Sep 23, 2015

Malicious Xcode could spread via download manager Xunlei

What’s at stake?

We reported last week that popular Chinese iOS apps were compromised in an unprecedented malware attack. We discovered that the source of the infection was compromised copies of Xcode hosted on Baidu Pan. Apple has published an article urging developers to download Xcode directly from the Mac App Store, or from the Apple Developer website and validate signatures. We’ve now discovered that even if a developer uses a download link seemingly from Apple, he might still be possible to obtain a compromised copy of Xcode.

Please note that we do not have evidence that such attacks has happened. But it is an easy attack that anyone can implement.

How does it work?

This compromise happened because of Xunlei. Xunlei is the most popular download manager in China. Much of its popularity is due to the fact they can accelerate download speeds by pulling resources from other Xunlei users as well as cached copies on the Xunlei server. All of this, however, is invisible to users. Users can simply enter a regular http download address into Xunlei  download manager and the download will start. Chinese developers were using direct download addresses such as http://adcdownload.apple.com/Developer_Tools/Xcode_7/Xcode_7.dmg to download Xcode.

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From looking at details of my online English students in China, their e-mail addresses are (out of about 20 contacts):
1. Work e-mail addresses from company domain names
2. 163.com, with a grand total of 2! :D
3. One contact each at: qq.com, sohu.com, foxmail.com, gmail.com, hotmail.com

From speaking in group classes with many more students than I have in my contact list, I know that most of them have QQ accounts for instant messaging. I don't know if they also use those QQ accounts for email.

Thanks for sharing. We'd love to know more about:
1. What proportion of Chinese netizens use Gmail?
2. How many of them suspect or know that the recent Gmail problems are caused by the government?
3. How do they react to their email service being taken down?


I currently work in a small city in northern China (south of Beijing). The office is quite large, about 200 + workers. I was speaking with a tech-savy co-worker that is visiting from Guandong. When I asked him how many co-workers are aware that the Chinese government blocks some websites and searches, he answered maybe 1 or 2.

I asked a bunch of them. It turns out he was mostly right. There were a few that knew the government blocked websites like youtube and facebook, but none of them knew to what extent the internet is filtered here. Though they did believe that internet filtering is a good thing. I think it is a bad thing.

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