Using evidence from China, this study proposes the conflict expansion model to explore how pressure for policy change can build up to overcome resisting force and stimulate a response from decisionmakers in an authoritarian context. Tracing the policy change processes of four national policies, this study finds that the social pressure mobilised by media reports focused on specific events is a major force for facilitating policy change in China. However, owing to institutional constraints, the influences of societal actors are sporadic, incident-based and varied by population. The policy change process is protracted and difficult when it encounters resistance from state actors who have multiple institutional access channels for influencing the decision-making process. The power distribution between the facilitating and resisting forces determines whether policy change proceeds quickly or arduously.