Although research on Chinese human resource management (HRM) has attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent decades, such research has mainly been confined within the economic domain of for-profit companies. There is a dearth of research in the English-language literature examining how people are managed in the Chinese public sector, especially in higher education institutions. Based on a multiple case study, this paper explores how Chinese universities have reformed their traditional personnel management system, and investigates whether the ‘iron rice bowl’ system has been entirely replaced after three decades of HRM reform. Our findings reveal that employee management in Chinese universities has only partially broken away from its traditional ‘iron rice bowl’ system. China still has a long way to go to establish a modern HRM system in its public sector.