The establishment of either forest or grassland on degraded cropland has been proposed as an effective method for climate change mitigation because these land use types can increase soil carbon (C) stocks. This paper synthesized 135 recent publications (844 observations at 181 sites) focused on the conversion from cropland to grassland, shrubland or forest in China, better known as the ‘Grain-for-Green’ Program to determine which factors were driving changes to soil organic carbon (SOC). The results strongly indicate a positive impact of cropland conversion on soil C stocks. The temporal pattern for soil C stock changes in the 0–100 cm soil layer showed an initial decrease in soil C during the early stage (<5 years), and then an increase to net C gains (>5 years) coincident with vegetation restoration. The rates of soil C change were higher in the surface profile (0–20 cm) than in deeper soil (20–100 cm). Cropland converted to forest (arbor) had the additional benefit of a slower but more persistent C sequestration capacity than shrubland or grassland. Tree species played a significant role in determining the rate of change in soil C stocks (conifer < broadleaf, evergreen < deciduous forests). Restoration age was the main factor, not temperature and precipitation, affecting soil C stock change after cropland conversion with higher initial soil C stock sites having a negative effect on soil C accumulation. Soil C sequestration significantly increased with restoration age over the long-term, and therefore, the large scale of land-use change under the ‘Grain-for-Green’ Program will significantly increase China's C stocks.