Transparency and open debate about public spending are essential for a mature society

The mainland’s social media debate over the necessity of spending billions on a supercollider breaks new ground in allowing opinions to be heard

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 12:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 12:58am

Holding Chinese authorities to account for public spending is difficult when there is so little transparency. The first citizens learn of a project is often only when it is announced, planning having been done behind closed doors. Debate on social media about whether China should become a leader in particle physics therefore breaks important ground. Scientists have spoken of the proposal to build a supercollider, but the government has yet to grant approval, giving taxpayers a rare opportunity to make views known.

Particle physics, like space exploration, is expensive. A blueprint unveiled in 2014 by the Institute of High Energy Physics envisages a supercollider comprising 52km of tunnels so that subatomic particles can be smashed at enormous speeds to generate millions of Higgs Boson particles, believed to be the building blocks of matter. If constructed, it would be twice the size and have about seven times the energy level of the Large Hadron Collider operated by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, better known as Cern, which scientists used to discover the Higgs Boson in 2012. Institute director Wang Yifang believes the scheme could unlock the origins of the universe.

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If construction begins as planned in 2020, the first stage would be completed in 2030 at an estimated cost of US$6.3 billion. When finished in 2050, the bill is predicted to top US$21 billion. The announcement of such figures has generated heated debate in social media, with tens of thousands of postings supporting the objections of Nobel Physics Prize co-winner Yang Chen-ning. He contended in a WeChat article that the project would be an investment “black hole” with little scientific benefit that would pull resources from more meaningful endeavours like quantum physics and life sciences. The US approved such a project and spent US$2 billion on it before scrapping it for cost and political reasons in 1993. Wang has countered with postings arguing that without research in high energy physics, there would be no World Wide Web, magnetic resonance imaging and mobile phone touch screens. Just as there had been major technological advances as a result of space research, working with subatomic particles was bound to lead to unforeseen breakthroughs.

In a system that lacks open elections, there is every need to inform taxpayers and allow opinions to be heard. That is especially necessary with a scheme as expensive as a supercollider. Transparency and ensuring voices are listened to is essential for a mature and healthy society.