This paper explores changes in the organization of seed supply in China over the last decade by means of a multi-level institutional analysis. At the landscape level, the implications for China of the regulation of plant genetic resources through various international treaties and conventions are reviewed in the light of the evolution of the global seed industry. At the regime level, the transition in the Chinese context to market-based seed supply and the development of commercial and public seed sectors are examined. The study then analyses trends in seed supply at the niche level, with reference to participatory maize (Zea mays L.) breeding in three provinces in southwest China where high rural poverty persists. This work offers radical novelty in variety development and seed provision on behalf of smallholder farmers. However, a series of technical, organizational and market ‘mismatches’ are demonstrated within the existing seed regime. The participatory work emphasizes breeding for diverse cultivars adapted to specific ecosystems but these are prevented from reaching commercial markets by existing varietal testing procedures. Participatory breeding has potential to address farmers’ varietal needs as agriculture modernises and to support the public function of research institutes, but within mainstream intellectual property regimes the public value of participatory breeding cannot be accommodated adequately. Yet, when coupled to institutional innovations for recognising intellectual property and sharing benefit among all those who contribute, participatory breeding may initiate a powerful dynamics for change within seed regimes and a sui generis seed system suited to the Chinese context.