This paper examines the spatial and institutional characteristics of the emerging trend of inland port development in China. The paper analyses a sample of 18 major inland ports in three geographical clusters, comparing observed issues with similar developments in Europe, the United States and Africa. It highlights the issues of customs clearance and intermodal transport, before an extended discussion on conflicting models of development based on the priorities of inland and port actors. The aim is first to provide a descriptive account of this development, and second to provide tentative explanations for these results by comparing the findings with similar developments in other countries. This task is aided by use of a conceptual framework drawn from the literature, in which port-driven and inland-driven inland ports are contrasted. Thus a supplementary aim of the paper is to develop the conceptual model of directional development in a new geographical context. Findings reveal the need to align development priorities of central and local governments, as well as clarifying the use of subsidies to a number of different inland ports which may potentially split economies of scale through increased competition for an overlapping hinterland. The paper demonstrates that, while in the past China’s seaports had less inland penetration compared to more mature systems, emerging trends suggest some similarities to patterns observed in more integrated networks such as Europe and North America.