Public interest litigation has been considered a major legal breakthrough in China in promoting environmental law enforcement and the court-centred environmental movement. This article, however, reveals a huge gap between expectation and reality. Old legal and political obstacles against access to justice to protect individual rights also have a negative impact on the effectiveness of public interest litigation in practice. The design of the procedure is also problematic. Targeting polluters directly, civil public interest litigation diverts public attention from government accountability. The courts and procuratorates are overburdened with responsibilities that should be taken by administrative authorities. NGOs are not allowed to bring public interest litigation against administrative authorities and unnecessarily stringent standing requirements further restrict opportunities for NGOs to sue. Seeking monetary compensation through this procedure is an unstable and unpredictable approach to secure environmental restoration expenses. On the whole, this procedure has created more problems than it has solved.