What is going on with GMail in China, and how to get around it
What Is Going On?
The URL of GMail is https://mail.google.com/mail. The subdomain mail.google.com points to four separate IP addresses, listed below. According to our latest tests, only one of these is fully working in China. The other three are fully blocked, or blocked depending on where in the country you are or which ISP you use. Interestingly, only HTTPS connections to these IP addresses are blocked. For example, you can visit http://126.96.36.199. Doing so will take you to Google Search; GMail is available on HTTPS only.
|188.8.131.52||https://184.108.40.206||Blocked or not depending on location|
|220.127.116.11||https://18.104.22.168||Blocked or not depending on location|
The Partial Blocking Strategy
Partially blocking GMail may give users the impression that Google is to blame for offering an unstable service. If this strategy works, Chinese users may decide to switch to domestic providers, which operate under local censorship and surveillence conditions. Another explanation for this partial blocking may be that the authorities are nervous of fully blocking GMail. It's one thing to block a social network or a foreign news website (like http://www.nytimes.com which was recently blocked). Losing access to your email is considerably worse - if you switch to a new provider, you lose all your contacts and your past emails. The government may be scared of a backlash from the urban, educated and young people who tend to use GMail, not to mention the businesses that rely on it.
It's hardly a coincidence that this partial blocking is coming only days before the start of the 18th Party Congress. A similar tactic was used in March last year, at the time of the calls for a Jasmine Revolution (as can be seen in our data). These occasions may also provide a good excuse for dealing with what is really much more of a long-term problem - getting rid of Google. Google has a unique position on the Chinese Internet. While it's a minority player, it offers millions of Chinese netizens one of few ways of uncensored web seach (at https://www.google.com.hk) as well as encrypted email communication (through GMail).
What You Can Do
The obvious solution is to use a VPN or some other form of circumvention software. However, many people are reporting problems connecting to their VPNs these days. Luckily, there's another solution. As long as GMail isn't fully blocked, all you need to do is help your computer decide which IP address it should connect to. Regardless of whether you are on a Mac, Windows or Linux computer, this is done by editing the so-called "hosts file". You need to add an entry like this:
HowToGeek has a nice tutorial on how to edit the hosts file.
If it still doesn't work, you can try substituting any of the other three IP addresses in the table above. Whether any one IP works likely depends on your location, your ISP and it may also change quickly over the coming days.
Tell Google To Fix It!
Google can at any time change these IP addresses. Staying ahead of the censors is a game of cat and mouse, so tell the mouse to run faster. Report the issue to Google here.