Previous analyses have shown that cropland in China is intensifying, leading to an increase in crop production. However, these output measures leave the potential for further intensification largely unassessed. This study uses the harvested area gap (HAG), which expresses the amount of harvested area that can be gained if all existing cropland is harvested as frequently as possible, according to their potential limit for multi-cropping. Specifically, we calculate the HAG and changes in the HAG in China between 1981 and 2010. We further assess how climatic and land management factors affect these changes. We find that in China the HAG decreases between the 1980s and the 1990s, and subsequently increases between the 1990s and the 2000s, resulting in a small net increase for the entire study period. The initial decrease in the HAG is the result of an increase in the average multi-cropping index throughout the country, which is larger than the increase in the potential multi-cropping index as a result of the changed climatic factors. The subsequent increase in the HAG is the result of a decrease in average multi-cropping index throughout the country, in combination with a stagnant potential. Despite the overall increase in harvested area in China, many regions, e.g. Northeast and Lower Yangtze, are characterized by an increased HAG, indicating their potential for further increasing the multi-cropping index. The study demonstrates the application of the HAG as a method to identify areas where the harvested area can increase to increase crop production, which is currently underexplored in scientific literature.