This article situates China's local policy experimentation in the broader context of policy experiments in decentralized political systems, through a case study which represents a local state response to China's transition to a market economy. With growing regional and urban–rural inequalities evident after the initial reform period (1978–1994), local party leaders of inland provinces devised strategies for addressing these inequalities and encouraging public–private sector mobility among party officials. County and township-level leaders pursued local policy experiments in which they selected and sent officials to find private-sector work in China's booming coastal cities. Initiated in the 1990s and peaking in the 2000s, these policy experiments and inter-provincial transfers demonstrate the discretion that local officials possess to conduct programmatic/policy experiments in a unitary political system and show how officials resort to extra-institutional strategies in order to bridge perceived knowledge gaps. The ultimate demise of these programmes illuminates the challenges to extra-institutional policy innovations in transitioning states.