Although the Chinese government has mobilised the world’s largest number of youth participants in various civic service programmes since 1949, evidence indicates that the programmes remain far from achieving their goals. To examine the challenges of and options for implementing state-led youth civic services in China, this article begins with a literature review and later describes a study that involved the application of qualitative methods to explore structural features that have affected the implementation of state-led civic service programmes in China, including “Graduates Voluntarily Serving in Western China” (Daxuesheng zhiyuan fuwu xibu), “Graduates Serving as Village Officers” (Daxuesheng cunguan) and “Graduates Engaging in Teaching, Agriculture, and Health and Poverty Alleviation in Rural Areas” (San zhi yi fu). The findings indicate a boundary between state power and the market order that, as a structural factor, limits the number and types of institutions that may host youth in state-led civic service programmes in China. In response, China’s state-led civic service programmes should not limit themselves to the public sector but invite the third sector to participate in order to overcome state–market barriers. Moreover, at the policy level, a win-win situation is possible if the central government delegates the hiring power to the local government and host institutions.