Against the background of tightening social control by the Chinese communist regime after 2012, a small-scale social movement was mobilised by the independent Jifeng Bookstore in Shanghai. Unlike the traditional means of organising resources, this mobilisation was driven by a physical space. Between 1997 and 2017, Jifeng had offered and produced advantageous spatial forms of mobilisation, including liberal idea transmission, networks, extending to cultural symbolism and the identity boundary between citizens and authority. This article explains why the movement emerged, by using the process–mechanism approach. Conversation, brokerage and boundary activation of identity are the three interacting mechanisms that developed Jifeng into a space and leader of a social movement. The movement concluded in failure, implying the political regime's success in imposing further limitations on the operation of civil society. Nevertheless, historically, it is impossible to entirely eradicate the root of civil society growth in the face of harsh repression.