Hongkongers jailed in the Philippines: what use is democracy when the rule of law is so poor?

  • Ho Lok Sang says the Philippines, despite its democratic institutions, ranks far below Hong Kong and China in the Rule of Law Index. Cases involving Hongkongers in Philippine jails should bring home that democracy is not always the answer
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 7:51pm

The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index ranks China 75th among 113 jurisdictions, a grade that includes sub-rankings of 47th for absence of corruption, 57th for civil justice, and 54th for criminal justice. Hong Kong is ranked 16th overall, and comes in 10th, 12th and 16th respectively for the factors that the index is based on.

The United States is 19th overall, with sub-rankings of 19th, 26th and 20th. The World Justice Project is administered by an independent non-profit research team based in the US. Hong Kong’s overall ranking of 16th is unchanged from the previous year. The US has dropped one place. China is up five places.

The mainland is still not doing great, but it is clearly doing better and better. For absence of corruption and criminal justice, it actually ranks above the median. For civil justice, it gets the median score.

The Philippines, for all its democratic institutions, is doing far worse than China, in 88th place overall. It is ranked 62nd for absence of corruption, 81st for civil justice and 102nd for criminal justice. Unfortunately, four Hongkongers have experienced the Philippine criminal justice system first-hand. They were all recently sentenced to life for drug possession.

The incident occurred in July 2016. Apparently, the four men had been hired to bring a fishing boat from the Philippines back to Hong Kong, but were intercepted by the Philippine police. A reporter’s video of the police raid showed no illegal drugs were found in the four men’s bags during an initial search, and the video was presented in court. A lawyer for the four men had been confident that they would be cleared of the charges, given such strong evidence. Unfortunately, the judge ruled that there were “gaps between segments” of the video, and took the word of the prosecution instead.

Beijing is right to take up Hong Kong’s drug case in Philippines

Another Hongkonger, Tang Lung-wai, is now serving a 40-year jail sentence in the Philippines, after an arrest for drug possession in 2000. While in prison, he has written a book, The 5,730th day in the Black Jail, detailing his ordeal. His plea of innocence is credible; records show he was not even in the Philippines when the alleged crime was committed.

After Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor contacted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine authorities released immigration records showing Tang had entered the Philippines on June 19, 2000, which contradicted testimony that the Philippine police had monitored him from June 1 to 12. Fortunately, the new evidence surfaced before the deadline for an appeal. Tang is now awaiting the result of the appeal.

This is just one example that suggests the Philippines’ criminal justice system is far from perfect, and that police testimony cannot always be trusted. Therefore, I very much hope that in the latest case of the four men sentenced to life in prison, the evidence presented in the case will be properly considered by the courts.

It is ironic that the Philippines, a democratic country that gives its government power through the ballot box, is doing less well than China in key respects. The World Justice Project ranks the Philippines 107th for order and security, far below China (28th), the US (31st), Belgium (34th), Spain (37th) and France (46th). In China, people feel safer than in many democratic countries. Also, China’s economy is doing much better than the Philippines’, and even though growth is slowing, its outlook continues to be rosy by world standards.

Considering the two cases of Hongkongers in the Philippines, we should count our blessings. On balance, governance in Hong Kong is very good by international standards. More than anything, our strong tradition of maintaining the rule of law and a free press has allowed us to achieve effective public governance even without electoral democracy. Ballot-box democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good government.

Ho Lok Sang is dean of business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education