Women are underrepresented in legislature almost worldwide, and China is no exception. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented its first gender quota in 1933, gender quotas and women's representation in China remain understudied. This study fills the literature gap by examining the subnational variation in gender quota implementation and women's representation in the county-level people's congresses (CPC). Through a comparison of four county-level units in Hunan and Hubei with similar socioeconomic features yet contrasting results in the numbers of female representatives elected in the 2016 CPC election, this study argues that women's access to CPCs is affected by the CCP's adoption and enforcement of grassroots quotas. The fieldwork shows that although all cases introduced a 30 per cent gender quota, only CPCs in Hunan province were able to meet the quota requirements. This was because the grassroots quota threshold was raised in Hunan and strictly enforced, partly as a response to the 2013 Hengyang vote-buying scandal. In contrast, CPCs in Hubei province nominated a large number of “first hands” (yibashou) candidates, very few of whom were women.