Whether government has the political will and capacity to control pollution is crucial for environmental outcomes. A vast country such as China, with centralized policymaking but idiosyncratic local implementation of environmental regulations and drastic regional disparities in wealth, raises the question of how does the central government stimulate local environmental commitment to accommodate such diversity? In exploring this issue, this paper compares three national environmental management programs that are used as influencing and bargaining tools between the central and local governments of China: Quantitative Examination of Comprehensive Control of Urban Environment (1989), Model City for Protecting the Environment (1997) and pilot Green Gross Domestic Product (2005). Although the introduction of these schemes represents an important step forward in addressing demanding environmental issues their impact is found to be mixed. However, each scheme also has something important to offer to this particular realm of environmental management and by recognizing and compiling their comparative advantages a number of policy implications for future local commitment towards and capacity for environmental protection can be provided. © 2013 Taylor & Francis.