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Kaitlin Britt '09 Studying Education and Policy of Chinese Political Elite

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 6, 2008
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For Kaitlin Britt '09 (Charleston, S.C.), summer research, following a junior year with the Associated Colleges in China program, has been one more step in pursuing a long-held interest. Britt came to Hamilton because of its Chinese language program, she says, and spending a year in Beijing pursuing intensive language study, learning 150-200 characters a day, was exactly the opportunity she wanted. Her developing language skills allowed her to learn more about Beijing, as well. "Being in touch with language helps," she explains, since her knowledge of Chinese allowed her to talk to people herself, rather than basing her opinions solely on what she heard on the news.

One of Britt's favorite things to do in Beijing was to take a cab and talk to the driver. "They are very knowledgeable about the city and how things have changed there," she says. From her conversations, she conceived the idea for a summer research project supported by the Levitt Research Fellows Program, originally to study popular attitudes about democracy and economic progress. After finishing her program in China and returning to Hamilton, Britt discussed the project with her collaborating professor, Lecturer in Government David Rivera, and refined her topic to study one aspect of Chinese political trends – looking at the relationship between the educational backgrounds of China's leaders and their policies for the country.

Britt explains that although educational experience is only one of the factors in a leader's political priorities, it is useful to study how the connection plays a part in national policy. "By looking at one aspect – the elites – you can get an idea where the country will be headed," she says. Britt points to a shift in leaders' backgrounds over the 20th century as evidence. Before the Cultural Revolution, many leaders did not receive a higher education, but gradually a trend emerged where more members of the political elite had backgrounds in engineering and technology. Now, Britt says, many leaders are Western-educated, with degrees in law and the humanities from elite colleges and universities.

Having taken a break in her research to volunteer for a month in a Peruvian orphanage, Britt has only recently returned to start investigating the second phase of her project, how elite education affects policy. She has collected information on a broad swath of China's political leaders ("I have a massive Excel spreadsheet," she says), but she may refine her work further, focusing in greater detail on the top policymakers, nine members of the Chinese Politburo.

Britt says that aside from the challenge of focusing her project to a more specific, manageable topic, her major obstacle has been finding the information she needs and knowing whether it is legitimate. "The Chinese government is not necessarily known for its openness," she explains, and it can be a struggle to find concrete information on the backgrounds of the political leaders. However, Britt says she was surprised to find that so many in the political elite had been educated in Western universities, since she had expected to find reluctance about Western influence. She is also investigating the leaders' geographic backgrounds, and has found that many come from the economically booming coastal cities, leaving much of China underrepresented.

For her senior thesis project, Britt hopes to use her research this summer and broaden the topic to include work she did while she was in China, perhaps focusing more directly on economic issues. As a double major in Chinese and Spanish, Britt hopes to attain an M.B.A. to work in international marketing. "I want a job where I speak more Chinese and Spanish in a day than English," she says.

-- by Laura Bramley

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