This article draws on the social network embeddedness perspective to construct a multilevel analytical framework through which relations between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in China and the government are examined. The following arguments presented are based on a comparative case study of two social service NGOs: First, “top-down” and “bottom-up” types of NGOs alike can achieve some degree of autonomy in both internal management and external relations. Second, NGOs may undertake very different strategies to gain autonomy, even in the face of very similar external conditions. Third, under current conditions, whether NGO leaders are embedded in particular political networks, i.e. the political connections of an NGO, will constrain the strategies that NGOs would pursue to achieve autonomy. Finally, a multilevel approach reveals the complexity of NGO–government relations and helps to move the analysis beyond a zero-sum approach to state–society relations in China.