When Marcin Jerzewski, ’18, arrived at the University of Richmond from Poland, he was certain that he wanted to study East Asian affairs. “In high school, I began taking Mandarin Chinese as my foreign language, and I became fascinated with the language, culture, and social realities of contemporary China,” he said.
But a winter break trip to Santiago, Chile, followed by Jennifer Pribble’s First-Year Seminar on Latin American politics and film, changed his trajectory, giving his studies a much broader focus. The course focused on the dictatorship of Pinochet and the transformation of Chilean politics into democracy. Jerzewski was hooked and began studying Latin affairs as well.
He then began looking for ways to combine his two interests by studying the growing relationship between China and Latin America, and a UR Summer Fellowship helped him achieve his goal. “We hear a lot about how China gets involved in Africa, but since 2002, when China entered the World Trade Organization, it has become more involved in Latin America as well,” Jerzewski said. “I wanted to use my summer to conduct an independent research project in political science to learn more about two regions of the world that are interesting and dear to me.”
Most of the academic scholarship on China’s involvement in Latin American countries focuses on countries in Central or upper South America, such as Ecuador and Venezuela. While China’s relations with Chile and Argentina are important for all three countries, Jerzewski could not find research that delved into these relationships, so he decided to make those countries his focus.
“Traditionally, southern countries have been perceived as the economic powerhouses; they are most developed, most prosperous, and the most Westernized part of Latin America,” he said. “However, they depend on China just as much as countries that are not as developed.”
“One of the core questions of my project is determining whether China is attempting to exert influence in areas beyond economics by building these economic relationships,” Jerzewski said. To answer that question, he spent five weeks in Santiago, and five weeks in Buenos Aires, exploring how China is perceived by the media, and by politicians and bureaucrats.
“I looked at articles that mentioned China over a 10-year period in the five most-read newspapers in each country to see if a correlation exists between the volume and nature of the articles and China’s involvement in each country,” Jerzewski said. He also interviewed academics and politicians to get their perspective.
When he returned to Santiago to conduct his research, Jerzewski immediately noticed differences in the city from his first trip in 2014 that suggest Chinese influence. “The city center and the area around the main train station have changed completely. It almost looks like a Chinatown because of a growing Chinese diaspora and free trade between the two countries,” he said. He also cites Argentina giving permission for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to open a military base in the desert of Neuquén Province as evidence of a relationship between the countries that may extend beyond economics.
Jerzewski felt the most valuable aspect of his research experience was being able to conduct his investigations in the countries he was studying and immerse himself in each country’s culture. “Social science is studying people and the impact of different phenomena on them. I really enjoyed seeing what these relationships with China would mean for the people of Argentina and the people of Chile,” he said. “I was able to have a lot of informational conversations with people who may not be trained in political science or economics, who simply observe how China is playing a growing role in their homeland.”
Now that he’s back in Richmond, Jerzewski plans to analyze his data and find ways to share the results. “I think it’s important for social science research to be accessible; every piece of research should have practical implications,” he said. “People should understand why they are being studied.”