The local party-state has always been a major source of extrajudicial influence in China. Drawing on interviews with judges, this article examines the impact of Xi Jinping's ambitious judicial centralization reforms, which are aimed at enhancing judicial autonomy by transferring authority over local court personnel and finances from local to provincial level. It finds that the reforms have achieved limited results. Although many appointment and budgetary powers were formally transferred to the provincial level, the local party-state retains considerable influence in both areas owing to its superior manpower, local knowledge and, in the case of developed regions, financial resources. Moreover, the local party-state maintains significant informal influence over the courts, which require many forms of discretionary assistance from various state organs – ranging from appropriating land for new courthouses to providing police protection for remote tribunals – in order to function. This setback highlights the depth and complexity of the courts’ political and economic embeddedness and serves as a reminder of the inherent difficulty of institutionalizing judicial autonomy, however limited, in a large and diverse party-state.