Clearing the Path: An Expert Weighs in on E-Mail

1014_WWWOne head-scratcher inescapable while living and working in China, is a limited access to foreign websites and servers. Under the influence of the powerful Chinese firewall, foreign e-mail services such as Gmail have more often been unstable, especially since May 29 when Google, normally controlled through 90-second shut downs when sensitive issues are searched, was blocked almost completely.

To help readers better understand the e-mail system and access international servers more smoothly, expert Alex Chen, the technical director for Openfind Information Technology (Shanghai), Ltd., one of the leading companies of enterprise messaging management and search solutions in Asia decoded the issue.

First of all, the e-mail communication model should be clear. As the graphic shows, when users with any device—for example, a computer or cell phone—send an e-mail, it’s called a Mail User Agent (MUA). The message will first arrive at the e-mail’s server called the Mail Transfer Agent (MTA), then the MTA sends it to another MTA, which is the receiver’s e-mail server. At last the second MTA sends it to the receiver’s devices.

In China, Chen told us, the full process is affected by a few factors. The Great firewall for one. This is a problem when either the user or transfer agent is not located in China. The invisible wall, officially called the Golden Shield Project, has performed censorship and surveillance throughout the network protocols, including html and e-mail, for more than 10 years.

Issues can also be found within telecom operators. If both the MUA and MTA are within the country, but using different telecom carriers, service could also be affected. For example, the MUA is using China Telecom, and the MTA is going with Great Wall Broadband Network. The MUA might not be able to connect with MTA in some cases.

In China, Chen told us, the full process is affected by a few factors. The Great firewall for one.

And then there are regional policies. In some sensitive parts of the country, such as in Tibet and Xinjiang, the internet censorship and e-mail interruption will be strengthened.

To solve or relieve such problems, Chen suggested taking a couple of measures. Some simple, others may take some more looking into. On the simple side, the most convenient way is to pay. A VPN, or virtual private network, is a service that can make all the business slowing issues go away.

The next step is to forward all e-mails to a local mailbox like QQ Mail or an international mailbox with a server in China like Microsoft’s Hotmail. Of course they were raided not long ago by antimonopoly agents and could be the next to get blocked.

And finally, he says, users can set up the SMTP or POP3/IMAP4 on their e-mail setting and download messages from e-mail’s servers onto the users’ computer through a program like Outlook. For Gmail IMAP/POP3 setting instructions, go to

When using foreign e-mail services in China, Alex gave a few details to which need to be paid more attention:

  • Avoid sensitive words in contents or attachment. These can be vulgar, political or news related terms.
  • When sending e-mails with an attachment, it’s best to zip the attachment and encrypt the e-mail, too.
  • Avoid sending e-mails to yourself (the same sender and receiver), because it is considered illegal by the Chinese firewall.
  • Try to use anti-virus software from America or Europe, Chinese versions may surveil for sensitive words.

In 2013, over 182 billion e-mails were sent/received by almost 4 billion accounts worldwide, according to the Radicati Group, Inc., a technology market research firm based in the U.S. Up to 70 percent of them were spam and 3 percent contained malicious attachments, according to Kaspersky Security. Credible e-mail servers should be able to recognize a spam and handle it properly, but often, and more so lately, people doing business here have complained of approved e-mails ending up in the spam folders.

The transfer agent will screen and judge incoming mail by a few methods. It checks if the incoming mail’s IP address is on the Real-time Blackhole List (RBL), which is a list of IP addresses most often used to publish addresses linked to spamming.

Verify the mail’s IP address with Sender Policy Framework (SPF) system. SPF is an e-mail validation mechanism aiming to detect if the incoming mail is sent from a domain that authorized by that domain’s administrators. For example, someone claims to call you from 123456 but according to Caller ID it’s called from 654321. It’s easily spotted.

Scan through the content. Usually keywords and blacklisting URL’s judge if it is spam.

To avoid getting spam or at least not letting them intrude too deeply into your life, Chen explained a few of the basics. “In most cases, your e-mail address and credentials will be leaked to a third party no matter what kind of websites you register on in China, which causes the flooding of spam,” he said. Therefore, he suggests to always use a free personal e-mail account for registration instead of a company account. He recommends QQ Mail due to its strict spam screening system. It is also widely used by Chinese and conveniently gets notification from two major Tencent social media QQ and WeChat.

Secondly, it may sound cliché, but it’s very important to be cautious about what you download and the links you click, especially from an unknown source. Keep your operating system updated and install anti-virus software.