Much has been written in recent years on ‘local state corporatism’, centre-region relations, government and enterprise reform and on sustainable rural and agricultural development in China. Based on some of the theoretical underpinnings of this literature, and on extensive fieldwork in the full range of administrative levels, this paper presents an institutional approach to one Chinese rural industry. For a number of reasons, the Chinese cattle and beef industry serves as a highly revealing case study. While the industry only began developing along commercial lines in the 1990s, institutional forces have been instrumental, and perhaps more important than market forces, in forging the industry along its particular development path. The paper highlights the way by which institutions have affected particular development issues in the industry.