The rare-earth industry is of strategic importance for China and many ‘clean’ technologies worldwide. Yet the processes of mining, smelting and separating rare-earth ores are heavily polluting. Using a neo-Gramscian perspective in the context of organization studies, this article analyses the dynamic interactions between government agencies, business and civil society in the development of the environmental governance of China’s rare-earth industry over the past 30 years, with a particular focus on China’s ‘top-down’ passive revolution. Making use of rarely granted access to China’s biggest rare-earth company, one of the country’s key strategic assets, the analysis makes visible the changes of environmental contestations among five different governance actors over what we identify as three environmental governance eras in China. Besides offering unique empirical insights into the organizational processes that constitute the dynamically evolving hegemony of China’s rare-earth industry, the article makes three theoretical contributions to the field of organization studies. First, we analyse the changing role of state institutions in a non-Western context, which has been de-emphasized by existing organization scholars. Second, we conceptualize the dynamics of environmental governance in China as a form of top-down ‘passive revolution’. Third, we problematize the dual role of Chinese NGOs as both supporting and challenging state power. Overall, we contribute to our understanding of the organization of governance systems in non-Western contexts, which has been neglected in organizational studies.