It’s hard to praise China’s environmental efforts with a straight face. The giant country is in the throes of an industrial revolution that have left its skies darkened by soot, its rivers poisoned and many of its people sick. Yet China is showing some signs of a turnaround, including a new recycling bill and a movement to keep Beijing clean following the Olympics.

The bill passed by China’s National People’s Congress during its closing session last Friday, and signed into law by President Hu Jintao, mandates changes in industry and government, the most polluting entities in China. The central government will begin monitoring heavy manufacturing, construction, electricity generation and other industries in hopes of lowering emissions and reducing consumption.

Among the steps taken by the bill are measures to conserve water and move away from oil toward natural gas and renewables; the Daily Mail has more details. Also included is a push to have government adopt renewable sources like solar power for their needs. Under the law, China could set itself on the path of becoming a major buyer of cleantech goods, in both its public and private sectors.

Also of note are the 400,000 residents of Beijing who have joined online discussions about keeping the city tidy. The city went through a number of elaborate contortions in an attempt to clean its air for the Olympics, including forcing a scheme on its citizens to only allow half of the city’s cars on its roads on any given day, based on license plate numbering.

Surprisingly, it seems that many favor keeping the rule, along with other measures. It’s also worth noting that Beijing now plays host to one of the world’s fastest railways (state news agency Xinhua asserts that it is the fastest) between Beinjing and the nearby port city of Tianjin, which can carry millions each month.

The potential criticism for the new legislation, as well as Beijing’s initiatives, is that outside of the capital, the central government might not carry enough weigh to quickly change how business is done. Chinese provinces are known for their independence. Sometimes that means that they’re free to come up with forward-thinking plans of their own, like mandating energy-efficient lighting in a city, but that characteristic could work against the central authority in terms of sweeping environmental legislation.

But it’s encouraging that China is seriously thinking about its environmental impact. While the country last year surpassed the United States as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, it has the potential to guide its growing infrastructure into more sustainable habits — as well as create a market for cleantech within its own borders.