Summary The health burden of cancer is increasing in China, with more than 1·6 million people being diagnosed and 1·2 million people dying of the disease each year. As in most other countries, breast cancer is now the most common cancer in Chinese women; cases in China account for 12·2% of all newly diagnosed breast cancers and 9·6% of all deaths from breast cancer worldwide. China's proportional contribution to global rates is increasing rapidly because of the population's rising socioeconomic status and unique reproductive patterns. In this Review we present an overview of present control measures for breast cancer across China, and emphasise epidemiological and socioeconomic diversities and disparities in access to care for various subpopulations. We describe demographic differences between China and high-income countries, and also within geographical and socioeconomic regions of China. These disparities between China and high-income countries include younger age at onset of breast cancer; the unique one-child policy; lower rates of provision and uptake for screening for breast cancer; delays in diagnosis that result in more advanced stage of disease at presentation; inadequate resources; and a lack of awareness about breast cancer in the Chinese population. Finally, we recommend key measures that could contribute to improved health outcomes for patients with breast cancer in China.