In this introduction to the special issue ‘Changing work, labour and employment relations in China’, we argue that China is taking an experimental and decentralized approach to the development of new labor relations frameworks. Particular political constraints in China prevent interest aggregation among workers, as the central state sees this as posing a risk to social stability. Firms and local governments have been given a degree of space to experiment with different arrangements, as long as the categorical ban on independent unions is not violated. The consequence has been an increasingly differentiated labor relations landscape, with significant variation by region and sector. We note some countervailing tendencies towards re-centralization, but emphasize that this phenomenon remains largely confined to the municipal level. The five articles in this special issue address different aspects of both experimentation and decentralization in labor relations.