Studies of China’s agri-food transitions have so far largely overlooked the role of the public in policymaking and practice. We argue that a deeper understanding of public perceptions of – and engagement with – agricultural innovation, is required to better understanding the dynamic responses that exist to the multiple complex and intersecting challenges facing China’s food and agriculture system. In order to demonstrate the kinds of additional evidence that might contribute to an enhanced understanding of the role of the public sphere in China’s agri-food transitions, we present findings from an exploratory project drawing on qualitative field research. Focussing in particular on public perceptions of genetically-modified crops, we suggest a number of preliminary insights that confirm, challenge or supplement earlier findings. We use this study, in the particular socio-political context of China, to shed light on the complex role of public perceptions (elsewhere in the transitions literature referred to as ‘market/ user preferences’ or ‘culture’) in agri-food transitions. This raises important questions for the governance of Chinese agri-food transitions and how future research might better inform its response to a changing public sphere.