Phantom services: Deflecting migrant workers in China

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As China urbanizes, more migrants need and expect public services. Many municipalities, however, resist and undermine elements of the central government’s urbanization strategy by deflecting demands for benefits instead of meeting them or denying them outright. Urban authorities sometimes do so by establishing nearly impossible eligibility requirements or requiring paperwork that outsiders struggle to obtain. At times they also nudge migrants to seek health care or education elsewhere by enforcing dormant rules or by shutting down a locally available service provider. Local officials use these ploys for both political and practical reasons. Limiting access isolates and disempowers migrants and is cheaper than offering benefits. Phantom services are a consequence of the localization of the household registration system (hukou) and a sign that new axes of inequality and gradations of second-class citizenship have emerged.




Chan, A. T., & O’brien, K. J. (2019). Phantom services: Deflecting migrant workers in China. China Journal, 81(1), 103–122.

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