This article explores the role of law in shaping the growth of private education, as a part of educational reforms in response to social change in the People's Republic of China (PRC) after the 1980s. This paper argues that law acts as a new social game rule, one used by the state to govern, regulate and promote new relations and interactions between state and non-state players in educational reform and to rectify irregularities generated by the players. The process of legislation reveals the tension between regulation and deregulation of the relationship between private educational institutions and government. This paper concludes by offering an understanding on the role of law as both a means and an end in shaping educational reform in the face of ongoing social changes. Copyright © 2006 Taylor & Francis.