Since Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were launched by the United Nations in 2015, intensive studies have been carried out to assess China’s progress towards SDGs, aiming at a comprehensive understanding of the current challenges and thus guiding policymaking for future development. Generally, the SDGs indicator system was following the recommendation from United Nations. However, whether these objective assessment results would match public satisfaction of ecological civilization construction (another important criterion for measuring government performance towards SDGs) remains unexplored, which could largely interfere with policymaking processes. Here, by establishing a sustainable development gradient with 31 provinces in China, this study investigates the changing relationship between the public satisfaction of ecological civilization construction and average performance of all SDGs or SDGs evenness, as well as its underlying mechanism. By doing so, we aim to guide policymaking at different development stages. Our results showed that: (1) there is no significant relationship between the average performance of all SDGs and public satisfaction, while SDGs evenness is positively related to public satisfaction, especially at a high level of average performance (R2
<0.01). (2) environmental and economic indicators are the main factors affecting the public satisfaction, while the impact of environmental quality is stronger in provinces with high average performance towards SDGs. (3) the trade-off between economic development and environmental protection goals restricts the construction of ecological civilization in provinces with high average performance towards SDGs, and is also an important factor shaping the positive correlation between the SDGs evenness and public satisfaction. Overall, this study highlighted that SDGs evenness, rather than the commonly used average performance of all SDGs, is an important factor controlling public satisfaction. Thus, traditional assessment using the latter is not likely to effectively guide the ecological civilization construction in China. This is probably due to the neglect of progress differences among SDGs when looking at the average performance only. Moreover, the effect of progress differences among SDGs related to economic development and environmental protection on public satisfaction gradually increases along the sustainable development gradient, suggesting that China should pay more attention to the deficiencies of SDGs to stimulate ecological civilization construction in the future.