The poor enforcement and effectiveness of environmental impact assessment (EIA) on construction and investment projects in China has long been blamed for not preventing environmental pollution and degradation. At the same time, freezing EIA approval of all new projects in an administrative region, introduced in 2006 as a punishment for failing to meet regional environmental quality targets, has been regarded as an innovative administrative instrument used by higher level environmental authorities on local governments. But it also raised controversies. Applying an environmental authoritarianism perspective, this study analyzed the legitimacy and environmental effectiveness of freezing EIA approval procedures by reviewing all 25 national cases and 12 provincial cases of so-called EIA Restrictions Targeting Regions between 1 December 2006 and 31 December 2013. The results show that such an environmental authoritarian measure is to some extent environmentally effective but lacks legality and transparency towards and participation of third parties, and hence falls short in legitimacy. Legal foundations and wider third party participation are essential for the long term effectiveness of this policy and its transfer to other countries.