From 1988 the Chinese Government pursued a policy of ‘small government, big society’. The policy was determined at the highest level and, after a pilot study in Hainan Province, was implemented vigorously in a series of political reforms. It was the chief political dimension of the economic restructuring which led from state ownership of enterprises to the so-called socialist market. Like its economic counterpart, it reflected China's adoption of neo-liberal ideology. The aims were to encourage both civil society and the private market to provide social welfare and, thereby, to restrict demands on public expenditure. However, it failed to realise these goals and was recently replaced by a more state oriented approach. The article discusses the Chinese big society project and, specifically, examines why it was introduced, what it consisted of, its impact on social welfare, the criticisms it attracted and its recent changes in nature. The article concludes by considering some possible lessons for the UK Coalition Governments’ big society project and any similar initiatives attempted in other countries.