Following decades of change in health care structures and modes of funding, China has recently been making pilot reforms to the governance of its public hospitals, primarily by increasing the autonomy of public hospitals and redefining the roles of the health authorities. In this paper, we analyse the historical evolution and current situation of public hospital governance in China, focussing the range of governance models being tried out in pilot cities across China. We then draw on the experiences of public hospital governance reform in a wide range of other countries to consider the nature of the Chinese pilots. We find that the key difference in China is that the public hospitals in the pilot schemes do not receive sufficient funding from government and are able to distribute profits to staff. This creates incentives to charge patients for excessive treatment. This situation has undermined public service orientation in Chinese public hospitals. We conclude that the pilot reforms of governance will not be sufficient to remedy all the problems facing these hospitals, although they are a step in the right direction. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.