This paper reviews institutional changes in pastureland use in China over the last 30 years and discusses their impacts on pastoral communities, drawing evidence from case studies of two agro-pastoralist and two pastoralist communities. Those who rely directly on pastureland for their livelihood are vulnerable to the joint effects of pastureland degradation and climate change. The authors argue that a 'top-down' governance structure with no participation from local communities and a 'one size fits all' institutional solution are a poor fit for pastoralism management. The authors conclude that the current institutional environment in China may be leading to decreasing populations, reduced livestock rearing, impovenshnient and increasing inequality within pastoral communities. Bearing in mind that pastoral systems have characteristics that are specific to their areas and tailored to their local context, the authors recommend paying greater attention to bottom-up', locally specified strategies which can be combined with tong-term institutional arrangements that have historically provided pastoralists and agro-pastoralists with the resources to adapt to change.