This study uses a micro set of Chinese city-level data to understand the varying choices taken by municipal officials in their distribution of a minimum livelihood scheme. It explores the variation in the apportionment of allowances offered to disparate types of poor groups in poor versus wealthy cities. The paper argues that in China, where profits, modernisation, competition and globalisation have become significant to leaders at all levels, there is a logic undergirding welfare allocation that has nothing to do with the calculus that spurs its delivery in democracies, and yet that is more nuanced than stylised models of dictatorship/authoritarianism presume. The paper also demonstrates that, where lower echelons of governmental administration have the authority to make rules about the rationing of social assistance, urban finances appear to have an impact upon (or at least to correlate with) administrators’ allocational decisions to groups among the poor. This influence of municipal financial health is exerted directly in the case of poor places, by enticing officials to attempt to save on funds; it also seems to operate indirectly in wealthier municipalities, by disposing richer cities’ authorities to design their urban areas as showcases, in the hope of attracting tourism and foreign investment.
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