China is the world’s most populous country, with 1.4 billion people. It is the second largest economy in the world with a 2019 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of approximately $14 trillion. China continues to modernize rapidly, making the Chinese market an increasingly attractive opportunity.
- An Internet penetration of about 61% with 850+ million users in 2019. (Xinhuanet.com)
- 1.6 billion mobile phone subscriptions, which reflects 114% of the population. (Statista.com)
- More people using a mobile device to access the Internet than a desktop or notebook computer.
Fewer than 250 million people use email, less than 40% of those online. Of those that do, a vast majority use freemail email accounts or email addresses provided by their mobile carrier. More people in China check their email on a desktop computer instead of a mobile device, but mobile email use is on the rise.
Instant messaging (IM) via over-the-top (OTT) messaging services is far more popular in China than checking email from mobile devices for people with mobile Internet access. IM in China is most often done through Tencent’s WeChat or QQ. Instead of sending messages via Short Message Service (SMS), consumers can bypass their carrier and use data to access apps like WeChat for free messaging (except for premium services). The popularity of IM over email could be attributed to the younger demographics of the average Chinese Internet users who start using the Internet first on a mobile device. Despite these trends, email still has an important place in the Chinese market.
Consumers show far less brand loyalty in China, tending to look for the best deal unless they are shopping for very high-end products. Also, there are huge deliverability hurdles in China; less than 60% of emails reach any folder.
Local providers, rather than global players, dominate the Chinese email landscape.
Four major mailbox providers control 90% of the market:
- NetEase (126.com and 163.com)
- QQ Mail
- Sina Mail
- Sohu Mail
Other domestic providers include:
- TOM Mail
- 139 Mail
NetEase and QQ Mail dominate the Chinese market and likely make up the largest percentage of the mailers’ Chinese subscribers. The other providers are relatively small and rarely an issue for email senders. Many mailbox providers are just a small component of their company’s overall products and services.
Of the global providers, only Microsoft has much of a presence in China:
- Google’s products and services are largely blocked in China, and Gmail is notoriously unreliable within the country. While some China users have Gmail accounts, it is rarely used by the general public because blocking issues create a poor user experience.
- Yahoo!’s China operations, owned by the Alibaba Group, were shut down in 2013. Alibaba suggested that Yahoo! China mail users migrate to AliCloud Mail. Yahoo! China users had the option to open an AliCloud account and link it to their Yahoo! China mailbox at that time. Mail was deleted for those who did not create an account.
- Microsoft has a China presence, but it is likely to only make up a small part of senders’ Chinese subscriber base.
Language-based technical considerations
The Chinese language uses characters instead of letters and currently non-Latin characters are not supported for use in email addresses (although they are supported for web addresses as Internationalized Domain Names).
A new trend among mobile providers that offer email services (such as China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom) and consumer mailbox providers (such as NetEase and QQ) is to allow the use of mobile numbers for email addresses. From a Chinese speaker's perspective, it is easier to remember an address of numbers than one in Roman characters, especially if it is the same as your contact's mobile number. All Chinese mobile numbers are 11 digits and begin with 13,14,15, or 18.
Strict media censorship is seen as critical to maintaining national stability. While the Internet is probably the most open source of information in China, it is still highly regulated and monitored.
The Chinese censorship system is quite technologically advanced. The Chinese are blocked from accessing thousands of websites based on URL filtering using politically sensitive keywords such as “Dalai Lama”. News websites are told on a daily basis that they must avoid certain topics or cover them only in a certain way. On occasion, email and Internet use have been blocked in entire areas of the country, particularly those with high populations of ethnic minorities.
Legislative requirements are often overlooked in China, but that could always change.
Is it best to assume that email sent to servers hosted in China is monitored. Marketing email cannot include:
- Content that jeopardizes network or information security
- Adult content, including pornography or ads for pornography, gambling, tobacco, and illegal drugs (alcohol does not seem to be a problem)
- Weapons-related content
- Anything that “compromises State security, discloses State secrets, subverts State power or damages national unity” or “other content prohibited by laws or administrative regulations”
Given the sensitivities of the Chinese government, even innocent marketing emails intended to conform to legal requirements could be misinterpreted and blocked.
Chinese law imposes stricter requirements for permission-based marketing email than in the U.S., but these requirements are not well enforced. However, the law does provide a framework within which individual mailbox providers may do their own spam control. The legislation requires clear and definite consent before sending messages containing commercial advertisements. To comply with Chinese legislation, mailers must adhere to specific content restrictions and keep records of email sent and received on their servers.
Websites that operate and are hosted in China are required to obtain an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license, a permit issued by the bureau-level Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). Required information for registration includes information such as:
- A local contact and address
- A business license number
- A tax ID
If you operate a company in China without an ICP license, your site may be blocked.
Some clients and partners report that additional filtering is used on email from companies without an ICP license. According to reports, QQ used a bot to open all links for each message on every campaign, skewing performance metrics. This may be related to the Great Firewall of China (a government censorship effort) but has not been confirmed. The relationship between the ICP license and email marketing is not fully understood.
Sohu takes Return Path's Certification whitelist, although senders may not receive full Certification benefits there. Microsoft and Yahoo! have a presence, so Certification still has value when sending to China.
The NetEase Trust Alliance is a whitelist with a feedback loop (FBL) and provides delivery data similar to Microsoft's Smart Network Data Services (SNDS). Provided that senders follow program guidelines, they are granted daily sender limits higher than regular senders. Currently, it is only open to Chinese senders, but Return Path has contacts and has been permitted to register on behalf of our clients. SNDS can be set up separately through a different system without whitelist registration access via NetEase's standard 163 Mail interface.
Many Chinese mailbox providers use IP-based filtering, but content filtering is prevalent and contributes to the slow sending speeds because of processing time. Anything considered political can be filtered. Chinese law also forbids email and websites with adult content. Messages with such content will likely be filtered.
NetEase has the most well-developed content-based filtering, which it developed on its own. NetEase relies heavily on it and largely sees third-party blacklists (including Cloudmark) as inferior. It uses its technology for anti-spam efforts and also for filtering messages into the appropriate commercial mail folder.
QQ has an FBL. The FBL does not work consistently, and QQ Mail has no plans to fix it. However, signing up for it helps with inbox placement.
NetEase is the only Chinese mailbox provider that currently participates in Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC). It provides DMARC aggregate and message-level data and accepts the DMARC policy. Email Fraud Protection would be able to report on email authentication and DMARC policy enforcement. No private channel relationships exist with our Chinese partners at this time.
It is recommended to adhere to strict sending best practices when sending to China to increase your chances of reaching the inbox.
- Obtain explicit consent from all Chinese subscribers and keep a record of when and through what method permission was obtained.
- Know your audience and create culturally appropriate content that resonates with your subscribers.
- Establish at the outset the language that you will use to address your audience.
- Send all email to China in Chinese. Sending content in English could potentially cause issues during content filtering.
- Use copy throughout your email ecosystem that reflects local tastes and idioms. Be especially careful to ensure that any trademarked or branded copy is appropriate in the local language.
- Use encoding that is appropriate for the local market. In many countries, Unicode UTF-8 is the standard, but markets such as China employ different standards. Only one encoding standard per email send is permitted. As a result, it is important to create and segment your emails so they are sent to the specific geographical area where the encoding used will be accepted.
- Understand who the major mailbox providers are in each region you will be emailing to so you can ensure that your program accounts for the idiosyncrasies of different providers in all of the markets.
- Understand the legal environment covering email and privacy in each of the regions you are planning to serve; it is not always the national government that regulates email marketing in a country.
- Label your promotional messages as “AD” in the subject line.
- Do not include anything that might be construed as adult or political content that might be conceived as harmful to state security.
- Use mobile friendly content design due to the large number of mobile users in China.
- Include unsubscribe links in all email content and immediately honor all unsubscribe requests from Chinese subscribers.
Connection and throughput
Chinese mailbox providers have slower processing speeds. It is generally recommended a maximum sending volume of 4000 messages per IP address per hour. The volume of messages allowed for your IP address may be lower than 4000 due to various factors related to your sending reputation and content. Many mailbox providers impose daily sending limits but often vary them based on a sender's subscriber engagement metrics.
It is not uncommon for IP addresses from outside China to be heavily throttled and there is little a sender can do to avoid it. Senders have seen throttling as drastic as a list of a million users being limited to 100,000. If it occurs, determine when the throttling began and stop sending for 24 hours to give the system time to recover. Then resume sending.
Blacklists and block removal
The Anti-spam Committee (ASC) of China purchased the China Anti-Spam Alliance (CASA) and its blacklists. All providers maintain internal blacklists.