This study analyzes the performance of the Chinese judiciary in administrative ligation during the recent reform period using a dataset of over 1.6 million judicial documents. Contrary to the conventional understanding, we find compelling evidence that the judiciary has become increasingly significant in checking the power of the government. Courts accepted 79% more cases from 2014 to 2020, and plaintiffs’ win rate against the government has risen from 33.2% to 42.2%. This increase is even more pronounced in cases with a strong impact on local government, such as those reviewing land expropriations and police penalties. Judicial authority has significantly improved, with chief government officials personally attending more than 50% of trials. Our findings illustrate a judiciary on the rise, but there are fundamental limits to its ascent. Courts carefully distance themselves from reviewing the behavior of any Party organ and remain silent on citizens’ political rights. Judges are reluctant to conduct substantive reviews of government actions beyond procedure matters. These findings present a tripartite theory for understanding the rule of law in China, where the law and the judiciary are instrumental in routine and even hard cases, but their power rapidly wanes in the face of politics.