The preemptive attacks by the Chinese government on Google email users apparently shows their fear that the many demonstrations that have occurred in the countryside -- which are largely unreported or unseen by outsiders -- could become a prominent issue in urban areas, as well.
Google and China's icy relationship hasn't exactly warmed in recent weeks. On Sunday, Google accused China of sabotaging connections to its webmail client Gmail to prevent unrest.
Multiple sources quoted a Google spokesperson's statement to the AFP, in which they said, "Relating to Google there is no issue on our side. We have checked extensively. This is a government blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail."
That statement followed an earlier blog posting in which Google stated that a major country was using an MHTML flaw in Internet Explorer to attack activists. Writes Google security team members Chris Evans, Robert Swiecki, Michal Zalewski, and Billy Rios:
We’ve noticed some highly targeted and apparently politically motivated attacks against our users. We believe activists may have been a specific target. We’ve also seen attacks against users of another popular social site. All these attacks abuse a publicly-disclosed MHTML vulnerability for which an exploit was publicly posted in January 2011. Users browsing with the Internet Explorer browser are affected.
Google is upset because the loss of service both adversely affects its customers and its advertising partners -- its primary source of revenue.
China is being highly cautious in the wake of public unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. Disgruntled citizens flocked to the internet to create "Jasmine rallies", protest events that were planned in major cities for each Sunday. However, thanks to China's crackdown on internet communications, the rallies have thus far failed to materialize, according to U.S. reporters.
The Chinese government is also being cautious, as the Parliament's 10-day annual session has just ended. Typically this is the most heated time of year in China as people voice complaints about Parliamentary decisions.
Google and China have endured a rocky partnership. While Android is selling millions of smart phones in China and while Google Search remains the second most used search engine in the world's most populous nation, the pair have frequently been at odds. Google has accused the Chinese government of allowing hackers to steal parts of its source code, and even alluded that the government itself might be behind those efforts.
Last year Google temporarily uncensored its search in response to these attacks, and was promptly kicked out of China's webspace. Google eventually agreed to re-censor the search results, but it remains more liberal in its allowances.
China's largest search engine is Baidu, a local firm. The Chinese government recently launched its own search engine, Panguso, in a joint venture with telecom giant China Mobile. That search engine, which features even more strictly censored results, has yet to gain significant market share.
The people of China have used proxies to escape the oppressive censorship of the government. However, the Chinese government -- along with its crackdown of Gmail -- has silenced many of these proxy services in recent weeks. The Chinese government also blocked a Google tool designed to allow people to find loved ones in Japan in the wake of the earthquake. Chinese authorities appeared to believe that the tool could be used to organize protests.