Internet giant Google on Monday accused the Chinese government of disrupting its e-mail services inside China, as netizens complained of inaccessible accounts and attempts to steal their passwords.
Gmail account holders have been complaining to the California-based company of disruption for several weeks, coinciding with annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing and anonymous calls for protests inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East, the company said.
But Google said they had detected no technical issues with Gmail.
"There is no technical issue on our side—we have checked extensively," the company said in a statement to RFA.
"This is a government blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail," Google said.
Users of popular microblogging services were quick to react to the statement, with many reporting similar experiences.
"My Gmail was hacked away from me," wrote Sino microblogger "pipefox." "I wasn't paying attention."
"I've been saying how Gmail hasn't been working properly lately," tweeted "Qingwan Gongzi," with a link to a report on the allegations.
Chinese netizen Hu Long said in an interview that he had recently experienced problems for the first time since opening his Gmail account five years ago.
"It has got worse, much worse," said Hu.
"There have been phishing sites appearing just recently, in the last week. A lot of my friends got caught by them."
The phishing sites had apparently persuaded a number of people to enter a password for their Gmail account, which was later hijacked and the password changed.
"Once their Gmail passwords had been lost or stolen, I was forewarned, so I knew I wouldn't fall for it," Hu said. "But some people have been unable to open their Google accounts and have stopped using them."
He said most Gmail users affected had assumed the problem originated with China's Internet police.
"I'm sure it's not a [technical] problem with Google," Hu said. "Someone is messing with it, I know it."
Google said it suspects the authorities of interfering with Gmail in a way "carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail."
Fujian-based blogger and online activist Peter Guo said his Gmail access had returned following Google's statement on Monday.
"There has been some change, and that is that I can now get into my Gmail account," Guo said. "Perhaps the government is easing up a bit now."
Guo said he had had problems in recent weeks with receiving mobile phone alerts from his Gmail account, as well as slow performance on the Gmail website.
"A lot of people in China can't get into their Gmail," he added. "They also can't use the chat function."
Users have reported inconsistent access, as well as problems sending e-mails and with the Gtalk chat service and Google's newsfeed reader.
"What a pain," wrote user "Blackdiaodiao." "If you're going to block it, then do it outright. Don't make it keep stopping and starting. It is really annoying."
"So Gmail has been firewalled now," wrote "Dongcheng," in a reference to China's sophisticated system of blocks, keyword filters, and human censorship known collectively as the "Great Firewall," or GFW.
Netizens had also reported problems using circumvention tools like WiTopia, 12vpn, and Strongvpn.com, known as "virtual-private network" or VPN services
which encrypt Internet traffic and route it through servers outside China, bypassing government controls.
Vulnerable to disruption
But the VPNs are vulnerable to disruption by government-sponsored hackers.
Google said in January 2010 that it had been the target of cyber-attacks that originated in China, with the Gmail accounts of rights activists affected.
The company later redirected China search-engine traffic to Hong Kong and scaled down its presence in China.
But Internet expert Pu Fei, who is based in the southwestern province of Sichuan, said the problems weren't universal among all Chinese Gmail users.
"Not everyone will necessarily be affected," Pu said.
"It doesn't mean that the whole of Sichuan has gone offline."
Beijing has explicitly forbidden any online content that "endangers state security," "divulges state secrets," or "subverts state power."
Any content that jeopardizes "ethnic unity," interferes with government religious policies, propagates "heretical or superstitious ideas," or "disrupts social stability" is also banned, according to regulations governing China's Internet published last year.
China has also rolled out tough new regulations aimed at monitoring Internet usage in cybercafes across the country in the past year, with many businesses now requiring a swipe of smart ID cards before allowing people online.
China had a total of 457 million Internet users at the end of 2010.
Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese service and by Ding Xiao for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.