Two Humphrey Fellows discuss social media in China, Russia

Hao Chen, a Humphrey Fellow from China, presented as part of the Cronkite Global Conversations. He spoke on the rise of web use in his home country, touching on the controversial topic of government censorship. (Chloe Brooks/DD)

The Humphrey Fellowship Program tackled the issue of social media in two of the world’s influential giants, China and Russia, in a Wednesday afternoon seminar at the Walter Cronkite School.

The presentations by Hao “Alex” Chen and Evgeny Kuzmin were part of the Cronkite Global Conversations, which kicked off on Feb. 15. Chen and Kuzmin are two of 10 foreign journalists selected from nations around the world as part of the Humphrey program.

According to the ASU event page, the conversations are intended to be open discussions about the role of media overseas, including the “firsthand experiences from journalists in some of the world’s most dangerous frontiers.”

Chen, who was born and raised in Shanghai and went to school in Beijing, spoke on the enormous rise of web users in China since it became available to the public in 1994. According to Chen, the number of users was reported at more than 500 million in January, despite heavy censorship from the Chinese government, which he referred to as “the great firewall.”

“More skilled web users are always finding ways around the firewall,” Chen said. “They’re eager to get more information.”

Kuzmin was raised in Siberia, a remote region in east Russia.

Laws are less strict regarding Internet censorship in Russia, Kuzmin said, but a lack of information and limited access to technology has hindered progress in web use among the middle and lower classes.

Kuzmin recalled his first experience with the web in 1998, four years after it arrived in Russia.

“I remember writing web addresses down in the library beforehand, so I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to search for,” Kuzmin said. “It cost me $5 for one hour, and I didn’t want to waste any time!”

Today, more than 40 percent of Russians have access to the web, and it has resulted in big changes in the country’s political system. In 2011, more than 30,000 citizens assembled in Moscow to protest the presidential election of Vladimir Putin.

“Social media was the only power that made this possible,” Kuzmin said.

In Beijing, Chen said the impact of social media is very similar. He spoke of a college student who has since become something of a national celebrity.

“She scored very high on a college entrance exam, but the school lost the test results and she was denied access,” Chen said.

It was only through her profile on Weibo, a Chinese social networking site similar to Facebook, that she convinced the school to reconsider.

“She posted her situation, asking for support from her friends, and after 18 days, Weibo got her into college,” Chen said.

Kuzmin and Chen, along with the other eight fellows, are living in downtown Phoenix and study at ASU. According to the program, they must have an undergraduate degree and at least five years of professional experience in their field of journalism.

“These are some of the most qualified men and women you can find,” said Bill Silcock, director of Cronkite Global Initiatives and the curator of the Humphrey Program. “They’re here to absorb, but also to create friendships and networks that will help them grow.”

The next discussion in the Cronkite Global Conversations series will be held March 14 in room 444 in the Cronkite building.

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Correction: March 1, 2012

An earlier version of this article stated Hao Chen’s name as Alex; Alex is Chen’s nickname. It also stated Chen was born in Beijing; Chen was born in Shanghai and went to school and worked in Beijing.