Purpose – Transformations taking place in China are of crucial importance in the development of the world economy. The international community is turning its attention to China's move towards a market economy and assessing the likely impact on the years ahead. This paper aims to plot the evolution of administrative reforms in China with particular reference to the state (and therefore public sector), because the modernization of the state is an issue that will persist into the future, and because the state itself was driving the country's transformation towards a market economy in a deliberate way. Design/methodology/approach – The paper revisits the debate on administrative reforms at different levels, i.e. fiscal, budgeting, government organizations, and public sector units (PSUs). In addition to reconstructing the evolution of norms and procedures as part of deliberate strategies by the center, the paper also investigates how actual practices at the micro level have followed this process of reform, with reference to the administration of cultural heritage at the municipal level, based on a field research project. Findings – A lack of understanding of the role played by actual accounting transformation seems to characterize the current debate on policies. Serious discrepancies can be found between expectations and actual changes; between macro and micro policies, and micro practices. Originality/value – An holistic focus on various trend of reforms is taken, looking at debates that are usually separated, also linking them to actual changes in accounting practice.