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JISHOU, HUNAN — Google and China have had a bit of a falling-out, as you may have heard. Google has relocated its China-based search services to autonomous Hong Kong and the mainland has responded by apparently blocking access to http://www.google.com — the US-based site.

All I know is, I cannot browse to http://www.gmail.com now to check my email. On one hand, it’s not a big deal; I can still use IMAP access and Mozilla Thunderbird to handle my email. On the other hand, I’ve now lost easy access to all the contact lists I had created for my classes. To get to them, I will either have to use the Tor proxy network to climb over the Great Firewall of China, or replicate the lists using Thunderbird or another unblocked webmail account.

Here’s a recap of the Google mess, if you haven’t been following it closely.

China requires foreign companies to abide by national laws, so Google had to agree to filter its search engine and search results to eliminate, among other things, risqué photos, porn and politically sensitive sites. Google took some heat stateside for its acquiescence to the restrictions, but Google’s leadership said it was a business decision.

In China, Google’s reps were also trying to persuade China’s net nannies to ease the restrictions, and to unblock some of Google’s other services, including Youtube, Blogspot, Blogger and Picasaweb. They had no success.

A few weeks ago, Google in the USA reported that someone overseas had made a concerted effort to crack Google’s mail servers, apparently to obtain the email accounts (and other information) of several Chinese dissidents. Google then reported it had traced the intrusions to a few locations within mainland China.

China predictably denied any such wrong-doing. Talks between Google and the Chinese government ensued, but in the end neither side backed down.

Then this week, Google announced it was shutting down its mainland-based website, and that all requests to http://www.google.cn would automatically be redirected to http://www.google.com.hk — the Hong Kong-based website. Although Hong Kong is now part of China once again, as an autonomous region, it enjoys some freedoms that the mainland does not; one such freedom is a relatively freely accessible Internet.

So, I can use Google-Hong Kong to search for things (though the Great Firewall may block the actual sites themselves), but I cannot access Gmail, which is located in the USA.

Thunderbird, my email client, can still access Gmail, so I can still read and reply to my Gmail messages. The IMAP protocol is not as yet blocked by the GFW. Neither is Picasa’s upload service to Picasaweb. (I can upload my photos, but I can’t edit them once they’re online. Grr.)

Torproject.org‘s proxy network enables China’s netizens to climb the GFW, but, at least for me, the connection speeds are excruciatingly slow. I need a lot of free time and patience to edit my photo albums at Picasaweb. Facebook, which is already not very zippy, sometimes loads like I am using a dial-up modem. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but I can still watch the page load from top to bottom.) And for security and privacy reasons, Tor blocks Flash, so I can access Youtube, but I can’t view any videos there. So I don’t even bother with Youtube anymore.

Lack of easy access to the entire Internet is a downside of living in China. The Obama administration has been lobbying China to loosen its grip on the intertubes, but Beijing turns a deaf ear. For the Chinese government, controlling the Internet is another way of controlling China’s huge population. Too much cyberfreedom might disrupt the “harmonious society.”