The effective implementation of environmental law has taken on greater urgency in recent times. Behind the multitude of domestic and international environmental instruments sit generally accepted principles like the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP). The PPP can be seen to advance sustainable development, at least partly, by private operators internalizing the costs of their pollution. This article analyses the application of the PPP in Chinese environmental law by focusing on a case study of Yangtze River pollution in and around the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The authors find evidence of an increasing acceptance of the PPP at the local, regional and national levels in China. At each of these levels, attempts to improve water quality in the Yangtze appear to reflect an acceptance of the PPP’s main aims.