Local administration in China remains a contested territory of environmental governance. Economic growth often comes with high environmental cost; the central government's environmental regulations are implemented unevenly. This article examines the experience of policy uptake and adoption of the National Model City of Environmental Protection programme in the county-level cities of the Suzhou Municipality. It analyses the rationales for these cities' adoption of the policy, and implications for the emergence of the “environmental state” in local China. It suggests that while economic development remains an important priority of local officials, this preference is not immutable and is now complemented in some areas by substantial local commitments to environmental good practice, often under the influence of local leaders as well as provincial authorities. Copyright © 2011 The China Quarterly.