Background Survivin is an inhibitor of apoptosis protein and is involved in the occurrence and progression of human malignancies. Recently, a functional polymorphism (−31G>C, rs9904341) in the promoter of survivin has been shown to influence its expression and confer susceptibility to different types of cancer. The present study was aimed to investigate whether the polymorphism also influences susceptibility and progression of renal cell cancer (RCC) in a Chinese population. Methods We genotyped this polymorphism using the TaqMan assay in a case-control study comprised of 710 RCC patients and 760 controls. The logistic regression was used to assess the genetic association with occurrence and progression of RCC. Results Compared with the genotypes containing G allele (GG and GC), we found a statistically significant increased occurrence of RCC associated with the CC genotype [P = 0.006, adjusted odds ratio (OR) = 1.38, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.08–1.76]. The polymorphism was associated with risk of developing advanced stage (OR = 2.02, 95%CI = 1.34–3.07) and moderately differentiated (OR = 1.75; 95%CI = 1.20–2.54) RCC. Furthermore, the patients carrying the CC genotype had a significantly greater prevalence of high clinical stage disease (Ptrend = 0.003). Similar results were also observed when we restricted the analysis to clear cell RCC, a major histological type of RCC. Conclusions Our results suggest that the functional −31G>C polymorphism in the promoter of survivin may influence the susceptibility and progression of RCC in the Chinese population. Large population-based prospective studies are required to validate our findings.