Back from Harbin: some numbers on academia in North East China.


Shop fronts on the streets of Harbin

Well, I’ve been home for a week now from my trip to Harbin, still with a cold, and my mind whirring trying to compartmentalize all that I was lucky enough to see in the latter parts of my stay. During those days, I was fortunate enough to take in a few sights, particularly in the neighbouring city of ChangChun – a city most famous for its role in the Japanese invasion of NorthEast China, and its subsequent set up of the puppet nation of “Manchuria.”

This includes the story of Puyi, or the last Chinese emperor, who was caught in the middle of everything, a seemingly reluctant player during this time of Chinese history – a time that the locals essentially view as a holocaust of their own. It was definitely eye-opening to peruse through his palace, which is also home to a museum dedicated to the historical recording of Japanese aggression. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was some element of “propaganda” (even small) was inherent in this museum, especially given China’s own track record in human rights. A shame really, since this skepticism marred an otherwise powerful museum experience.

During the last few days, I also got to ask quite a few more questions about academic life in a well established NorthEastern university, and here is what I could sort of gather.


Undergraduate hall at North East Forestry University. This huge building caters to all the majority of the undergraduate courses at this university. The undergrad program is pretty diverse (not just Forestry) and has about 20,000 students. Tuition? About $400 per year.


Huge electric leader board in the same building. Provides info on which classes where on at that moment, which were coming up.

Becoming a professor is a longish affair. Usually starting off as an assistant professor, where most of the duties are delegated to teaching courses. Hours are long, with such members of academia devoted schedules that went from early morning to about 10pm at night. Such positions usually began at an age of about 35 or so. Starting salary was broken up – usually a basic 2000 Yuan (~ $200) per month salary, with extra for performance. A middle of the road scholar could probably earn an extra 3000 Yuan a month. This performance figure would be based on academic accomplishments (grants pulled in for the school, publications, etc). This means, that a starting salary for an assistant professor is basically averaging at about $6000 per year, a stark difference to what we Westerners are accustom to.


Teaching Lab at the Agriculture University (one of three I visited). I gave a lecture here.


Despite the difference in standards of livings, the molecular labs were pretty decent here (NE Forestry University).

Despite that low number, things are obviously a lot cheaper in China. I’d ball park (based only on costs to eat at restaurants), that food is about 8 to 10 fold cheaper, and buying a place live would centre around a figure of about 3000 to 4000 Yuan per square metre, which I think calculates to about $40 per square foot). I’m also not sure, if these types of numbers are indicative of the bigger universities, say in Beijing or Shanghai. Anyway, it surely is quite different from what we see here in North America.

I also found out a bit more info on the transgenic tree stuff. Apparently, regulations are still present, but they are quite a bit more relaxed than in North America. Consequently, there are a number of collaborations that folks in China can set up with their Western counterparts (Chinese scholars are also quite well known in the slective breeding department – in fact I met two well known scientists who were famous for the prevalence of Tomato or Wheat varieties around the world). This desire to play a little more with the transgenic tree side of things, seems to have a lot to do with China’s aggressive re-foresting policy. I can’t remember the timeline exactly, but it had something to do with trying to make total forest land in China reach a target of 35%. It was apparently only 12% only ten or so years ago, and has already reached 28% in its current incarnation.

Overall, an interesting trip. As always, it’s nice to see other perspectives.


Graduate Dorm room in North East Forestry University. Basically a 12ft by 20ft room, that sleeps 4 students – you see here two bunks on one half of the room. Rent was about $100 for the whole year, which the students didn’t consider cheap.

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at