Gmail Access Is Blocked in China After Months of Disruption
A phone in China with a Gmail app. Blocking of Gmail service in China began on Friday. Credit Andy Wong/Associated Press
BEIJING — The Chinese government appears to have blocked the ability of people in China to gain access to Google’s email service through third-party email clients, which many Chinese and foreigners had been relying on to use their Gmail accounts after an earlier blocking effort by officials, according to Internet analysts and users in China.
The blocking began last Friday and has ignited anger and frustration among many Internet users in China. Data from Google shows traffic to Gmail dropping to zero from Chinese servers.
The new step in blocking Gmail has consequences that go well beyond making it difficult for users to access personal emails. Some foreign companies use Gmail as their corporate email service, for example. Now, the companies will have to ensure that their employees have software known as VPNs, or virtual private networks, to access Gmail.
That software allows users to bypass the Chinese Internet censorship controls commonly known as the Great Firewall, but the authorities also attempt to inhibit the software.
People in China began noticing the new blocking method over the weekend, as their phones, tablets and computers failed to download emails from Gmail accounts if the users did not have VPN software switched on. Until now, the devices had been able to download Gmail to clients like Apple Mail or Microsoft’s Outlook. Those clients use the protocols IMAP, POP3 and SMTP to download the emails.
For months, that has been the most common way for people in China to keep using Gmail. The Chinese government had blocked access to the Gmail website and other Google websites around the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, protests and fatal government response in Tiananmen Square.
Google has for years been a target of the Chinese government, and some official publications have cited the company as one component of a Western conspiracy to undermine China. For example, Chinese officials had insisted Google censor its search results, a request that angered some top executives at Google, and they refused to comply. Chinese companies like Baidu, which has a popular search engine here, benefit from the official crackdown on Google.
Chinese and foreign Internet users in China expressed their frustration on Monday at the government’s new blocking measures.
“They shouldn’t have blocked Google or Gmail; it’s against the spirit of the Internet,” Yuan Shengang, the chief executive of Netentsec, a Beijing-based cybersecurity company, said in a telephone interview.
One Chinese technology news website, 36kr, said in an article on the disruption that “such complete access failure to Gmail has no precedent.”
Luo Zhiqiu, a lecturer in English at Nanjing University, wrote on his microblog on Sunday that “it’s a critical moment for many students who are currently applying for overseas universities.”
“Their contact emails are Gmails,” he wrote. “Such blockage brings great inconvenience. Many years later, when they will consider whether they should go back to China, this experience might lead them to choose, without hesitation, not to return.”
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A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, was asked at a regularly scheduled news conference in Beijing about the blocking. She said she knew nothing about it.
“China has consistently had a welcoming and supportive attitude towards foreign investors doing legitimate business here,” she said. “We will, as always, provide an open, transparent and good environment for foreign companies in China.”
Last Thursday, Red Flag, a theoretical Communist Party journal, published an article by two scholars from the National Defense University that called for greater regulation and monitoring of Internet use in China. The article said foreign organizations or companies, including the United States State Department, were constantly looking for ways to help Internet users in China “break through the Internet,” or get around China’s censorship controls. China needed to take “powerful measures,” including cutting off the distribution of software that allows users to get around the controls, wrote the authors, Zhao Zhouxian and Xu Zhidong.
In November, Lu Wei, the top Internet regulator in China, presided over a conference in Zhejiang Province that had some attendees from foreign technology companies; Mr. Lu stressed the need for nations to have “Internet sovereignty,” meaning the countries should be able to create and control their own online space.
This month, Mr. Lu went to the United States to visit technology companies there on what was billed as a fact-finding mission.
He met separately with Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook; Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon; and Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple.
While giving Mr. Lu a tour of Facebook’s headquarters in California, Mr. Zuckerberg pointed out a copy of the book “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” on his desk. Mr. Xi is the Chinese president and head of the Communist Party, and the book is a collection of his speeches and essays. Facebook is blocked in China, and Mr. Zuckerberg has said he would like to have Facebook unblocked and do business in the country.
Chinese authorities blocked the websites of The New York Times and Bloomberg News after both news organizations published separate stories in 2012 on the family wealth of party leaders. Those websites remain blocked and cannot be seen without VPN software that gets around the Great Firewall.
Shanshan Wang contributed research.