Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Email services are particularly critical communication tools for dissident groups to discuss issues, organize activities as well as for disseminating electronic newsletters via mailing lists. However, email is just as critical for everyone else on the Internet, so balance has to be sought in moderating information flow without overtly disrupting it for the general user. At the basic level, the PRC attempts to block all email from known overseas ISPs used by dissident groups. For instance, after the massive Falungong silent protest outside Zhognanhai in April 1999, the government ordered an ISP to suspend email service for two days on suspicion that it was being used to coordinate the group internationally. In addition, Big Reference (Da Cankao) and Small Reference (Xiao Cankao), emailed publications by Chinese dissident organizations in the U.S., were blocked by Beijing from the ISP where these messages originated (Langfitt, May 1999). Even then, dissident publications typically responded by constantly changing their originating email addresses. To encourage potential subscribers, dissident groups also recommend that mainland users obtain free web-based email accounts, such as, or Readers would have less to fear since they are able to check their emails on the web, instead of receiving them via Chinese government-filtered network routers. Since these emails are “spammed” across a broad population of users as a way to hide intended recipients, Chinese authorities do not hold citizens who receive dissident email publications responsible for having gotten onto a mailing list. However, forwarding these messages is considered unlawful. To escalate the complexity of blocking emails, free and anonymous email services have been widely available on the web. As such, on the Tiananmen anniversary in 2000, the Ministry of Public Security reportedly sought to disrupt China’s free and anonymous email sites, namely and (Chase & Mulvenon, 2002).

Comment Icon0 While suspected email servers can be isolated and blocked, suspected email messages on the other hand can still be sent and received through any public email server by anyone. This is why the more sophisticated aspect of filtering email communication is involved, which means scanning the actual contents of the massive traffic of email messages going through China. Fortunately, email-filtering technology has been in development due to the persistent problem of unsolicited bulk email messages, commonly known as “spam”. Spam filters installed in email servers typically scan email messages for specific patterns, keywords or other distinguishing characteristics such as manipulated message headers. The same filtering technology used to flag spam emails could easily be used to flag emails containing a blacklist of sensitive words, in English or Chinese language. To test China’s email filters, ONI researchers used five email accounts from free email service providers in China, and then created 10 email messages with sensitive content sampled from Human Rights in China’s news summaries. Finally, they sent each of these 10 messages in English and Chinese (encoded in GB 2312 and Unicode) to all five email accounts in China from two different email accounts hosted outside China. Compiling the results of their test, they found that none of the politically-sensitive email messages sent in English were blocked consistently. The results even varied for the same messages sent in different Chinese-language encodings, with emails in Unicode receiving more consistently than in GB 2312. Ultimately, the ONI study found that email filtering was inconsistent in China. This indicated that email messages were not filtered at the backbone level, but rather the filtering was probably done at the discretion of each email service provider (Bambauer et al., 2005).

Chapter 6.1.3 – Filtering Emails


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