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Gmail Down for the Count in China?

Since Google’s announcement in 2010 that it would no longer agree to censor its search results in China, the government there has used increasingly pervasive measures to block access to the search engine giant. This major shift by Google was (at very least) attributable to a series of Beijing-based cyber attacks that had taken place several months prior, and has effectively ended its presence as a search engine on the mainland. The company has since moved its operations to Hong Kong, which, as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), does not need to follow the same censorship laws.

More recently, additional blocking measures were applied to other Google services—Gmail in particular—in June of last year. This was in “celebration” of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Despite this block, however, there were still large numbers of people on the mainland who continued to access Gmail and other services through workarounds, primarily IMAP or POP applications.

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This came to an end on December 26, however, when, in what seemed a knockout blow to Gmail, all remaining access to the email provider in China through third-party apps was mysteriously cut off. Google itself reported no issues, technical or otherwise, and there has been no confirmation from any authority in China as to why access was so suddenly cut off.

As of December 29, China’s State Internet Information Office has not responded to The Wall Street Journal’s request for comment. At a daily press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that she was not aware of any problem, adding that the Chinese government “always welcomes foreign businesses to carry out relevant work in China.”

In the first days of January, reports of some users being able to access once again have begun to trickle in. Others still report being blocked. Taking a look at Google’s real-time traffic tool, one can see that access in China is still down considerably from December 26, and has only begun to creep back up slightly.

China’s state-owned tabloid Global Times appears more than eager to place the onus for this at Google’s feet, pontificating that “since both Google and China haven’t given an explanation and meanwhile Gmail is a technically complex system, there may be some puzzling reasons behind the incident.” Adding that “if the China side indeed blocked Gmail, the decision must have been prompted by newly emerged security reasons. If that is the case, Gmail users need to accept the reality of Gmail being suspended in China.”

This does not seem to bode well for big American tech companies that assume (/hope) that China will somehow concede and slowly loosen its censorship practices in the foreseeable future. That is unless these companies, like LinkedIn, agree to heavy censorship guidelines at present. Who knows, maybe Facebook will follow suit and develop some variation of its site, as there is some speculation about moves being made on their part to get a real piece of the Chinese market. At the moment, they only maintain an advertisement sales office in Hong Kong.

For now, netizens in China who still rely on Gmail—and need access to countless other key sites that are blocked—the only solution is a reliable VPN.

H/T: WSJ