Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Well-known attorney Li Fangping (李方平) has brought a lawsuit against a Beijing company for discrimination against people without a Beijing hukou (official domicile) in a bicycle rental program. The program seems to be designed to work like a lot of bike rental programs in other cities: bicycles are placed in various locations around the city, and you can pick one up from any location and return it to any other location for little or no charge (thus, "rental" isn't quite accurate). In the Beijing case, brief usage is free, and more extended usage costs a bit. The program is open to people who hold second-generation Beijing identity cards. (The 2G cards have a chip in them, unlike the first-generation cards, which just have information printed on them.)
The Beijing government has responded to criticism of the limitation by saying that the program relies on the technology in the 2G cards, and anyway it's just a pilot program that will later be extended to non-domiciliaries. (Note that Beijing has many people who are in fact residents but aren't officially domiciled there.) Li points out that other cities seem to manage similar programs using 2G cards without limiting them to residents. I'm not competent (and don't have time) to assess the merits of these arguments based on the single report I saw of this.
One interesting feature of this case is that as with many governmental programs, it's apparently carried out not directly by a governmental agency but by a company that no doubt has strong governmental ties and support. (If it were operating solely on a profit-making basis, it probably would not offer free use of the bicycles.) According to the report, Li's complaint charges it with "discrimination". But of course to discriminate is just to make distinctions, and not all forms of distinction-making are invidious or illegal, and different rules typically apply to government agencies on the one hand and private actors on the other. It will be interesting to see how this case, assuming it's accepted by the court, is argued and decided.