This article contributes to the steady flow of critiques of the big society idea contained in The Political Quarterly. It focuses chiefly on two sets of parallels. The first is between the big society and the policies pursued by the Thatcher government which, despite their obvious rhetorical differences, contain many striking similarities, including their neoliberal origins, application of the ‘crowding out’ thesis and uncritically idealised notions of community. The second is between the big society and a policy with the same name pursued doggedly by the Chinese Communist Party for nearly 20 years until being abandoned as a failure. Lessons for the Prime Minister's flagship policy are drawn from the Chinese experience. The article concludes with a welcome for the rediscovery of the social by public policy and some suggestions as to how a more participative and democratic state could follow from this breakthrough.