Phantom Services: Deflecting Migrant Workers in China

Dr. Alexsia Chan

As China urbanizes, more migrants need and expect public services. Many municipalities, however, deflect demands for benefits instead of meeting them or denying them outright. Within cities, the authorities may establish nearly impossible eligibility requirements or require paperwork that outsiders struggle to obtain. Municipal leaders may also nudge migrants to seek healthcare or education elsewhere by enforcing dormant rules, shutting a service down, or encouraging them to pursue cheaper options in another city or in the countryside. Urban officials deflect migrants for both political and practical reasons. Limiting access isolates and disempowers migrants and is cheaper than offering benefits. Phantom services are also politically appealing at a time when the central government is calling for greater benefits for non-locals and urging people to move to small cities, but municipal authorities must deal with migrants who continue to appear in large numbers in the biggest, most desirable cities. Findings are based on in-depth interviews conducted between 2010-2017 and other sources such as policy documents.