China’s swiftly blooming internet-enabled population is expected to top the 500 million mark later this year. To put this figure into perspective, it represents one out of every four internet users in the world, or a number of people considerably larger than every man, woman and child in the United States, Canada and Mexico combined. If you engage in international email marketing you certainly have subscribers in China and thus need to be aware of the 2006 Chinese legislation entitled Regulations On Internet Email Services.

  • Auditable Permission – Unlike the relatively lax opt-out policy represented by the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act, Chinese regulations call for specific permission to be received prior to sending out any email missives and for the evidence of this action to be recorded and permanently stored for verification.
  • Ad Content – Also unlike CAN-SPAM, which regulates email where the primary purpose is marketing-related, Chinese law applies to any message containing any form of advertisement. Relationship or transactional messages are not considered promotional in the U.S., but they certainly are in China as the slightest amount of corporate content right down to a mere mention is sufficient to trigger the definition.
  • Software Certification – Should your email contain a link to any downloadable software or app, you are required by law to guarantee in writing that the programs do not contain any spyware or any function that can facilitate hackers. Definitions in Chinese law are notoriously fuzzy so these “functions” could be virtually any snippet of code.
  • Subject Line AD – All email marketing messages must have the word AD or the Chinese equivalent in the subject line. Most countries do not require AD in the subject line but that is not a valid excuse as the Chinese regulations are very clear on the point that each email to any Chinese resident must be in compliance.
  • Content Restrictions – Article 57 of the Regulations on Telecommunications of the People’s Republic of China dictate the content of the allowable email and it is this section where the real mine field lies. The wording is left vague on purpose to cover the control China exercises over its online communications. There are literally thousands of words that are banned in China’s cyberspace. Not only does it include the obvious ones such as Democracy, Tiananmen, Dalai Lama and Falun Gong, but also common words that are seen as fully neutral from a Western perspective such as disciple, truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. Furthermore, any marketing of anything that fits the Chinese government’s description of pornography, gambling, tobacco and in some cases even alcohol is cause for violation.

Penalties of Up to $4,500 per Email

Each transgression of these regulations are subject to a penalty of 10,000 yuan or just over $1,500 and these fines are tripled to over $4,500 should the violation involve “unlawful proceeds,” again in the rather murky Chinese definition. Therefore, a casino site sending out one million emails to China would be subject to more than $4.5 billion in fines!

A Rose Bowl Full of Censors

In actuality, most violating emails are snared in the Great Firewall Of China and never make it to their intended inboxes. China operates the most efficient and brazen online censorship policies in the world, enforced by a bureaucracy of internet censors that is acknowledged to total 28,000 but is rumored to exceed 100,000 government employees engaged in the full time pursuit of deleting “illegal” content from all forms of online communication. Imagine the Rose Bowl packed to capacity with a few thousand more people tailgating in the parking lot… and each individual employed in doing nothing but hitting Delete buttons all day long.

Most Emails Are Just Blocked, Not Prosecuted

The prospect of email marketing to China is a daunting one as the implications of the regulations are perturbing to say the least. Technically, if your subscriber from Boston, Berlin or Bogota is accessing your email while on a business trip to Beijing, that email is subject to the same legislation as one specifically sent to a Chinese citizen. China’s regulations fail to explain how an email marketer is supposed to know where each of their subscribers are at any given time, so it is fortunate that in most cases emails are only blocked and not prosecuted.

Violating Chinese law can result in serious consequences, so email marketers are well advised to familiarize themselves with the pertinent legislation before sending anything to the People’s Republic of China.