Pavlov's Dogs

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who studied conditioned behaviour. In the experiment for which he is best known, he rang a bell whenever he fed his dogs. Gradually the dogs developed a connection between the sound of the bell and provision of food to eat so that eventually they salivated upon hearing the bell ring even when there was no food.

We have two excellent examples of Pavlovian behaviour now in Hong Kong’s political life. The first concerns any proposal put forward or endorsed by chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Whatever its merits, you can be sure that it will be immediately attacked without serious thought – or indeed any thought at all – by certain members of the opposition camp.

For some reason which Pavlov would no doubt wish to study further if he were still alive, the amount of saliva doubles if the Central People’s Government is in any way associated with the idea.

Interestingly, the reverse is also true. Any proposal put forward by the opposition will be forthwith rubbished by the administration and given little or no serious consideration at all.

The administration also fiercely counterattacks against any criticisms of its ideas whatever the source. The bell rings, the official mouth waters.

Reaction to the ongoing exercise to test on a voluntary basis members of the public for Covid 19 is a good example of the different mindsets.

Announcement of the scheme drew two different sets of critical responses. Traditional opposition spokesmen saw conspiracy everywhere, DNA of Hong Kong people would end up in the hands of mainland security officials, personnel conducting the tests were not up to local standards, results would be meaningless, and so on. They urged people to boycott the tests.

Experts in the field agree that such a widescale exercise can be extremely useful if it is mandatory, accompanied by a total lockdown, and covers the whole population. In short, the entire 7.5 million population gets tested and we know where everyone was at that moment. It follows that it is less useful – but not completely without merit – if the mandatory nature and lockdown features are missing.

Some of these specialists – academics and medical professionals of undoubted repute -- queried whether the reduced benefits were commensurate with the costs. Some even said they would not take the government test themselves. But at no stage did they say nothing useful could be learned nor did they urge a boycott.

The government batted away easily enough the usual opposition complaints, but it then went a step too far, dismissing the second group of queries as coming from “so-called experts”. Memo to chief executive: just because someone does not agree with the government’s thinking, this does not diminish in any way their right to speak or reduce the validity of their qualifications and opinions.

Meanwhile the testing exercise rolls on. The original target of 5 million participants has been quietly dropped, to be replaced by an estimate of two million. In fairness, senior officials did step up to the plate, Lam herself was tested in public as was minister in charge civil service secretary Patrick Nip Tak-kuen. Full marks to them and the other ministers who participated.

But the real damage done by reflex opposition/reflex defensive posture should not be underestimated. For it kills off any prospect of nuanced discussion and fine-tuning of ideas to achieve optimum results. For example the initial decision to ban all in-house dining had to be quickly reversed when it turned out to be completely impractical. Could the fiasco have been avoided? And what was the magic of 6, then 8, 9, 10 pm for restaurant closing hours? Were these reasoned steps or simply civil service incrementalism? Is there scientific justification for only two diners per table rather than four or is this just a stab in the dark?

Thankfully the practice of fining hikers in country parks – probably the safest location in the whole city – for failing to wear masks, has now ceased. But why are the swimming pools still closed? And was there another safe way to reopen gyms apart from requiring users to wear a mask during strenuous exercise (which seems more likely to cause a spike in cardiac arrests).

Unfortunately the whole community is denied the chance to discuss calmly and weigh up the different options if raising a query is deemed to be challenging government authority and inviting denigration.

Looking back over events of the last two years, we can see similar mindsets operating in the extradition saga. There the opposition was much broader and included pillars of the establishment, all to no avail. Only direct action by the students could halt the juggernaut.

My main concern is with the future. The virus will be with us for many months, possibly years. The various control measures need to win wholehearted community support if they are to be effective. This support cannot be secured by police enforcement, it needs to be earned by evident government competence and willingness to engage in dialogue. The next major challenge will come when there is a vaccine – or rather, claims that there is an effective one.

Already many countries – including the USA, China, Russia, the UK – all report significant progress. Who should we believe, especially bearing in mind that there is evidence of corner cutting particularly in the USA where Trump badly needs a success to bolster his reelection chances. It is absolutely vital that there be a thorough professional evaluation of all the candidate vaccines before deployment in Hong Kong. This responsibility rests on both the government and the opposition. Any attempt to steamroller or veto a particular version must be fought. Either would have the effect of putting Hongkongers’ lives at risk by forcing use of a dodgy vaccine or denying early use of an effective one.

When the bell rings, both sides must resist the urge to let their mouths water. They must look for the beef!