In the past decade, Chinese officials, scholars and journalists have made the term “shiminhua” a buzzword in discussions of the country’s urbanisation. An innovation of writers from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the term relates to the problem of turning new urban residents into full members of the community, in legal, sociological, attitudinal and/or economic senses. The term is cited to legitimate or contest policies directed at those on the margins of cities. Rather than offering a definition, or even a single English translation, this article tries to make sense of shiminhua by linking it to several themes. Laden with ambiguities, problematic assumptions and elite prejudice, the term is of little analytic value. Nonetheless, rhetoric about shiminhua cuts to the core of conflicts over legitimate membership in urban communities. The term’s use offers a window into debates over major issues in China’s political and social development, including the extent of police control, legitimation of social stratification and the sort of welfare regime the country should build.