Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to analyse the key elements in the strategy of leading Chinese private firms in order to identify the key factors that are associated with the success of these firms. Design/methodology/approach - Secondary data source from the self report of 30 of the top 50 private enterprises of 2004 in China as the basis for analysis. In analysing these self reports, a table was compiled that records the name of each case study firm, nature of its businesses, its ranking in the top 50 in 2004, background of the owner entrepreneur/CEO, history of the firm, and key elements of strategies. Findings - The paper identifies that the key success factors of these firms appear to be associated with firm growth through business diversification, development of international market, strong emphasis on product innovation and quality enhancement, strategic marketing, product and corporate branding, and importantly, entrepreneurship of owner managers/CEOs and reform of corporate governance. Also revealed that top-performing Chinese private firms tend to adopt a high-commitment model of human resource management which emphasizes training and development, promotion by competence, extensive employee welfare provision, and enterprise culture development and management. Research limitations/implications - The secondary data came from company self reports with potential bias of self reporting. They were snap shots and anecdotal instead of longitudinal studies. They also contained top management s views only, which are not necessarily representative of the wider organisation. These methodological drawbacks mean that the data needs to be treated with caution and that more in-depth empirical research is needed to shed more light on the subject that is of growing importance in understanding Chinese business and management. Originality/value - This paper fills the gap in existing literature by revealing changes that have taken place in the privately owned businesses in China, key challenges they face and what strategic response they have adopted. The understanding of the business and management strategies of these firms is beneficial not only to scholars and students who are interested in China but also to organisational managers who wish to develop businesses with China.