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A Summer at Shandong University

This Summer Eduard Fosh Villaronga visited Shandong University. He writes about his stay at the second oldest university in China.

This January 2019 I joined Leiden University. I got a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research grant to investigate the legal and regulatory aspects of healthcare robot and AI technologies under the LEaDing Fellows Postdoc Programme. I am working at the eLaw Center for Law and Digital Technologies, a vibrant center that addresses in a multidisciplinary fashion the implications that technology poses to society.

Although I enjoy the research, engaging with students and their learning processes in educational settings drives me. There is something special in a classroom full of students with a thirst for learning; students that share their thoughts, their curiosities, and their passions; students that are insecure about what the future holds and go to their teachers looking for answers. Not so long ago, I was one of them. Where I am from, there is no such thing as law and new technologies. So I had a hard time understanding where I was heading in that field. Along my way, however, I found professors that shed the light on what seemed a very uncertain, and changeable future. And you know how it goes… if someone helps you, you better pay it forward.

One of the ways I thought I could help, was engaging in teaching; sharing with young students what I learned over these years, not only on law and new technologies but also about my choices and experiences as an international academic. So I went to the head of my department, Prof. S. van der Hof, and the director of research, Prof. B. H. M. Custers, and asked whether I could teach. Since I started in January, all the academic courses at the Advanced Master in Law and Digital Technologies were already prepared and there was little room for changes. However, Simone and Bart were supportive and encouraging and thought that I could go teach at Shandong University in China.

The news reminded me of a Chinese proverb that goes:

風向轉變時,有人築牆,有人造風車
‘When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills’

This proverb may capture part of the essence of Leiden University and that of the department where I work and coincidently seems to represent the intertwinement between China and The Netherlands.

Simone put me in contact with Anette van Sandwijk, the head of the office of international education. Anette explained to me that there was a program called Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility that allows students, Ph.D., and staff exchanges with universities outside of the European Union. If you know me, you will understand why I did not think twice about this excellent international opportunity. 

Anette was of utmost help in the process. She asked me to prepare an outline of the course so she could ask Shandong University if they would be interested in it. I prepared a course entitled “Robot law and regulation. The European approach to regulating robot and artificial intelligence technologies” and awaited the response from Shandong. After some days, I got the following email:

Dear Dr. Villaronga,

This is Hongjie Man from Shandong University Law School. It is such a pleasure to know you are willing to come to our law school to deliver an extremely interesting course on robot law and regulation. Feel free to let us know if you need any assistance and look forward to your visit very much!

Best regards,

Hongjie

Yay! I thought. Shandong University is the second oldest university in China, and having the opportunity to visit it was the perfect occasion to strengthen our good relationships with China. Together with Prof. Hongjie Man, who is the Associate Dean at the School of Law, we agreed that it would be best to deliver a summer course that could be an add-on to the exciting legal courses they already had during the academic year. The time passed by, summer approached, and the time to pack my bags and go to China arrived.

The Netherlands is not known for having the hottest summers, although climate change may sadly change this soon if we do not serious action against it. That is why one of the first things I remember from my trip is that it was so hot when I arrived in Qingdao. I loved it, though. I miss the blue skies and warmth from long, Catalan summers.

Ren Jiayi waited for me at the airport. Ren was the student that helped me navigate China, and that helped me with anything I needed to make the course successful: printing documents, preparing the slides, or sending emails to students. Jie Yan put us in contact. She was the Chinese ‘Anette’ and was very helpful at all times. I do not know what would I have done without them.

‘When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills’

Chinese proverb

Ren would take me every day to have lunch at the university, and invite me to play basketball with other students there. We ended up becoming very good friends. He is a student at Leiden University now, and I helped him explore a bit of Europe. I took him and his partner out for lunch in an Italian restaurant, cooked Spanish meal at home, and introduced them to the Dutch herring. Out of the three European culinary experiences, can you guess what was the most surprising for them?

Surprising is a soft word to describe their faces when they ate the herring! Chinese do not eat raw fish, at all… Maybe some parts might have Japanese restaurants that serve it, but it is not in their culture to eat anything raw. I have nothing to blame them about. I also had one culinary experience while I was in China. Have you ever tried fried cicadas? This is how I felt when eating one of them:

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This video was taken at the home town of Huiming Miao, the human resources manager of the hotel I was staying during my time in China. Since I was a long-term stay in the Hotel, we became friends. The video is not very representative of Chinese cuisine, I would say. The truth is that I have never eaten that much and that well in my life as when I was in China. The food in China is amazing. Their culture is about gathering around, in a big table, eating. They prepare zillion dishes and put them on the table at once, in a sharing-is-caring mode. They also welcome everyone. I guess this is one of the aspects I enjoyed the most about the staff exchange at Shandong University, that it was a growth at the academic and personal levels.

At the academic level, we had a wonderful and fruitful time. The university was emptier than usual because of the summer vacations. The majority of the students come a long way to equip themselves for the future and take the advantage to be with their families during the summer. But some of the students decided to join me for the course and learn more about robot law.

During the course, we learned about different robot applications, the regulation of robot and AI technology, privacy, responsibility, impact assessments, and also other broader considerations. The seminars combined presentations from me, but also from the students, as they were asked the day before to prepare short presentations on how China regulates this field. We had different workshops and activities revolving around the definition of robot and the future of work. And we talked, discussed, and shared our thoughts on the implications of robot and AI for our society.

Being able to participate in class and have the room to freely express themselves unconditionally is what the students appreciated the most, at least is what they told me in the feedback round at the end of the course. 

Since I prepared some questionnaires for the students to stimulate the discussions, we decided with Prof. Man to prepare some surveys for the students at Shandong University. We want to understand the Chinese attitudes towards robot technology, so we will prepare a replica of the Special Eurobarometer 382 Public Attitudes towards Robot Technology. This formal academic output represents a step forward in tightening our relationship with Shandong University.

The time flew, and soon I would be packing my backs again and leave. Prof. Man prepared me a wonderful letter thanking me for having visited them and spend time with their students. He also asked me when I would be available to go again next time, something that meant a lot to me.

May this be my thank letter back to Shandong University, Prof. Man, and all the wonderful students and persons I met along my way in China. I had a wonderful time and I look very much forward to repeating it again soon.

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