Objective Despite the significance of cervical cancer screening, motivating more women to participate remains a challenge in resource‐limited settings. In this study, we tested the protection motivation theory (PMT) in predicting screening intentions. Methods Participants were women from Wufeng, a typical rural county in China. Participants (n = 3000) with no cervical cancer history were recruited from 10 randomly selected villages. As mediating variables, 6 PMT constructs (Perceived Risk, Fear Arousal, Perceived Severity, Response Efficacy, Response Cost, and Self‐Efficacy) were measured using the standardized questionnaire. Structural equation modeling (SEM) method was employed to test PMT‐based prediction models. Results Of the total sample, 57.77% believed that regular screening may reduce cervical cancer risk, and 45.26% agreed that women should be screened regularly. Our data fit the PMT model well (GFI = 0.95, AGFI = 0.93, CFI = 0.90, RMSEA = 0.06, SRMR = 0.04, Chi‐square/df = 2.47). Knowledge of screening was directly and positively associated with screening intention. Age, annual income, and awareness of and prior experience with screening were significantly associated with screening intention by enhancing cervical cancer risk perception and by reducing response cost (P<0.05 for both). Conclusion PMT can be used as guidance to investigate cervical cancer screening intentions among rural women in China with focus on cancer knowledge, some demographic factors, and awareness of and previous experience with screening. These findings, if verified with longitudinal data, can be used for intervention program development.