This article uses curriculum-making frameworks to analyse and reconstruct the Chinese curriculum-making model and unpack the dynamics, complexity and constraints of China’s curriculum reform since the early 1990s. It argues that curriculum reform is China’s main human capital
development strategy for coping with the challenges of the 21st century, and that the state plays an important role in the reform of curriculum-making mechanisms and in the social distribution of knowledge, skills and dispositions through curriculum making. Data are drawn from a discourse
analysis of public texts, such as official documents and curriculum standards. This study has four major findings. First, China uses curriculum reform as a key strategy to counter manpower-related global challenges and to empower the country in the 21st century. Second, to this end, China
has re-oriented its curriculum making from a state-dominated model to one that is state-led, expert-assisted and evidence-based. Third, China’s new curriculum reflects the increasing tension between globalization and nationalism; while preparing its students to compete globally, China
also urges them to identify with and take pride in the nation’s achievements and culture. Fourth, Chinese curriculum reform for the 21st century may not unfold as the state expects, as it is constrained by curricular and extra-curricular factors.