This article examines discourses about grassland degradation in China as expressed by herders, government officials and researchers, presenting findings from fieldwork in Xilinguole League, Inner Mongolia. Recognizing degradation discourse and grassland restoration policies as key sites of political contestation, this study does not try to arrive at the scientific facts about degradation, but rather seeks to illuminate the mechanisms by which grasslands are identified as degraded, and the implementation of policies to restore and protect the grasslands. A key finding is that policy outcomes are widely divergent and difficult to predict. This is not merely due to differences among actors in terms of their interests, access to resources, power, values or knowledge, but as much a result of contradictions and tensions inherent in key policy goals, opening up spaces for local resistance as well as selective policy implementation. This highlights the open-ended and contested nature of China's environmental state project.