The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the renminbi (人民币 "People's Money"), often abbreviated RMB. The base unit of this currency is the yuan (元), international currency code CNY. All prices in China are given in yuan, usually either as ¥ or 元. The RMB is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which issue their own currencies although occasionally it will be accepted on an unfavorable 1 to 1 basis with Hong Kong Dollars.
The yuan is currently hovering at ¥6.2 to the U.S. dollar and slowly rising in value (Feb 2012).
The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), at 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分) at 10 fen to the jiao. The fen is extinct nowadays but may still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ¥0.10 will thus say 壹角 ("1 jiao"), not "10 fen", on it. But in colloquial Mandarin, people often say kuai (块) instead of yuan, and the jiao is also dubbed the mao (毛). A price like ¥3,7 would thus be read as "3 kuai 7" (although the trailing unit is usually omitted).
When dealing with numbers, note that for example wu bai san, literally "five hundred three", means 530 or "five hundred three tens", with the trailing unit dropped. The number 503 would be read as wu bai ling san, literally "five hundred zero three". Similarly yi qian ba, literally "one thousand eight", means 1800. When using larger numbers, keep in mind that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and thus for example 50000 becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.
A lot of Chinese currency will be in the form of bills — even small change. Bills are more common in some areas, coins in others, but both are accepted anywhere. Even the jiao, at just one tenth of a yuan, exists as both a bill (the smallest) and two different coins. Conversely, one yuan exists both as a coin and as two different bills. You should be prepared to recognize and handle either version.
Counterfeiting is a serious problem. Anyone staying in China for a few months would have certain experience on it. From ¥1 coin, to ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 bills, all currency are subject to a risk. The very first lesson to survive in China is how to scrutinize notes and even coins. The main focus is on the texture of different parts, metal line, change of colors under different lights. Ask anyone how, all of them have their own way.
It is very common for a cashier to scrutinize the banknotes you use to pay a bill. Don't be offended; they are not suggesting that you're using counterfeit currency. They just need to be responsible. When you get change, do the same, scrutinize the banknotes you get, especially notes over ¥50. Salespeople may try to give you counterfeit money that they took from other customers as change.
Counterfeits from ATMs became a hot topic in recent years, although it is not common. If you are worried, withdraw your money from the bank counter and say "I worry about jiabi (counterfeit)". Bank staff seem to be very understanding on this.
It's not unheard of a non licensed money exchanger on China borders to change counterfeits to travelers. If you're not experienced in checking notes, you're highly advised to go to banks.
When you pay with a ¥50 or ¥100 banknote in a shop or taxi, it's socially accepted that you remember the last few digits of your currency number as you pass it. It's possible that they say that your banknote is fake, just make sure you get back what you gave them.
Although still restricted, the yuan is readily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, U.S. dollar, Canadian dollar, Euro, British pound, Australian dollar, Japanese yen and South Korean won can be easily changed in China. Southeast Asian currencies are generally not accepted, the exception being Singapore dollars. Currency should only be changed at major banks (Bank of China in particular) or with the licensed money changers usually found at airports or high end hotels although these offer very bad rates.
A black market for currency exchange does exist but you are highly advised to avoid as counterfeiting is a major issue when exchanging money in China. Beware the private money changers found in markets and hanging around large banks. While their exchange rates may look attractive, unless you have a local friend to help you out, do not exchange money with them. It is not uncommon to exchange a large amount of cash only to find that most of what you got is fake. Stick with the official exchange counter in the Bank of China or one of the other large banks as even though you get slightly worse rates, the risk of getting counterfeit bills is close to zero.
Foreign exchange is under tight control in China. Private money changers, widely seen in many tourist spots or shopping malls around the globe, are still uncommon in China. In a bank, it usually takes 5 minutes to 60 minutes to process the exchange, sometimes a little faster in an hotel, depending on their experience. Generally speaking bank branches in major cities know the procedure and are relatively quick while even main branches in third and fourth tier cities can take much longer.
Regardless of location, you will need to fill a form and show your passport. Your passport will be photocopied and scanned. Keep the exchange receipt if you plan to leave the country with larger sum of money. Note that not all banks with the "Exchange" logo will exchange money for non-customers or for all currencies in cash. For example, Standard Chartered will only exchange cash for its customers and will only do US$ and HK$ in cash (but opening an account is quick and doable even on a tourist visa, and they offer a better cash exchange rate than most local banks).
Exchanging U.S. currency for RMB can be simple, but expect the bills to be heavily scrutinized before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy RMB before entering China, for example when coming overland from Hong Kong or Vietnam, should be taken, as the rates are better. The same is true going the other way - selling just across the border will often net a more favorable rate. Also, most international banks will allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card at a Chinese ATM. However, the rates for such actions are often unfavorable and may include steep service charges. It's useful to carry an international currency such as British Pounds, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen to fall back on should you not have access to a cash machine.
ATMs are all over the country but most ATMs outside the large cities that accept Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard network are owned by Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities like Shanghai most ATMs will take Visa/Plus/MC/Maestro/Cirrus. However, cash advances from Diner's Club, American Express, or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that natively take JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs will charge a small and flat fee.
Note: Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank, and Bank of Shanghai ATMs will sometimes display PLUS/Cirrus/Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs of theirs are linked into these networks, and there is usually no indication until you try. This is true of many other banks' ATMs, even Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).
Before traveling, find out if your home bank charges a currency conversion fee (often between 0-3%) on such transactions. It is worth opening a zero conversion fee account beforehand if possible. Otherwise it would be better to open a local account on arrival to store money in if staying for a sufficiently long time.
If you have trouble because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN only has 4 digits, try adding 2 zeros before it. If you find yourself in a town with a Bank of China branch but no international network-capable ATM, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card inside the bank. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has made agreements with various ATM card networks across the globe. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance inquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash advances from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.
Also, if your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, be aware that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Most major banks and upscale hotels will exchange travelers' cheques. You will need identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID, and your signature in front of the teller will be scrutinized very closely. In second-tier cities you will need to go to the head branch of Bank of China or Merchants' Bank. Exchanging travelers cheques is usually slower than exchanging cash.
Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or U.S. dollar, are rarely seen as a substitute for RMB except in several 5-star hotels, some shops on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, and stock exchanges. You are unlikely to use other currencies in most transactions (after all, the average visitor comes to China to sight-see and shop, not to play day-trader, but for the curious, the minimum balance for US$ trading is US$1000 with US$19 A/C opening fee while the minimum for HK$ trading is HK$5000). If you are running out of money and only have dollars in your pocket, it usually means that you don't have money to pay the bill without a trip to a bank. Many shops won't accept it, having no idea on exchange rate or how to check if the bills are counterfeit.
Electronic money transfers to another country are no longer as difficult as they used to be. Just about every bank in the big cities offers this service nowadays. On the other hand, service charges are variable (depends on the sending and receiving bank), the staff is sometimes ill-trained, and the process can take up to a week to clear. Alternatively, you may choose to look for a Chinese branch of a foreign or Hong Kong-based bank to do transfers. This is easier in the big cities, though.
It will be MUCH easier to do transfers if you have an dual-currency account with the Bank of China - opened at the branch from which you plan to get your money. Electronic transfers to dual currency accounts incur no or very low fees although it will usually take about one week. Transfers to Chinese accounts from overseas also take from three to ten business days. All you need to start an account is your passport, visa and a small initial deposit (can be RMB) plus the new-account fee (¥10-20). If you open a foreign currency account or a dual currency account, be sure to check if you will be able to access it in another province or overseas. Alternatively, for visitors from the US, Wells Fargo offers a service called ExpressSend that allows someone to send money from the US and have it arrive at a China Agricultural Bank account on the same day.
Western Union has deals with China Agricultural Bank and with China Post so there are a lot of Western Union signs around. This is what overseas Chinese sending money to relatives, or expats sending money out of China, generally use; it is generally easier and cheaper than the banks. A list of locations is available through Western Union's website. There may, however, be problems. Their system may be down or the employee you deal with may ask for silly things — for an overseas transfer, the recipient's passport and visa numbers, or for a within-China transfer, cash in U.S. dollars. Just try another branch if you are having difficulties.
Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash. The most popular credit card in China is UnionPay, and due to an alliance between Discover and UnionPay, those with Discover credit cards will find that their card is much more widely accepted (under the UnionPay system) than those with Visa/Mastercard/American Express. Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery store chains, and most ATMs. Beware of pickpockets.
Many department stores and large grocery stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards; typically these will not work for foreign cards (unless it is also a UnionPay card). However, because of the nature of Discover's agreement with the UnionPay network, it is treated as a domestic card at ATMs and point-of-sale. If you are going to spend a lot of time in China and use significant amounts of money, consider getting a Chinese bank account if signing up for a Discover card is impractical. Ideally, if in a big city and later traveling to smaller ones, try signing up for an account with smaller banks like Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; these offer free inter-bank ATM withdrawals anywhere in China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals overseas, a plus if traveling to nearby countries later). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay Cash Passports in certain countries.
While China is no longer the bargain destination it was during the 1990's, it remains quite affordable. Unless you are heading to Hong Kong or Macau, China is generally much less expensive - from a traveler's perspective - than industrialized countries. If you eat local food, use public transportation and stay in very inexpensive budget hotels or hostels then ¥200 to ¥300 is a serviceable daily backpacker budget. However, if you want to live an extravagant lifestyle and eat only Western food and stay in star-rated hotels, then even ¥3000 a day would not be enough. There is a high degree of variation in prices depending on where you go. Major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou generally cost much more than second tier cities and rural, inland parts of the country. The boomtowns of Shenzhen and Zhuhai are also known for being expensive by Chinese standards. Nonetheless, many Hong Kong or Macau residents (who live just across the border from Shenzhen and Zhuhai, respectively), who are generally more affluent than Mainlanders, often go to these cities to shop, play golf, and enjoy services like massage as costs are far lower.
As a general rule, tipping is not practiced anywhere in China. When leaving a tip on your table, it is common to see a waiter chase after you to return the money you "forgot" to take.
In a hotel, it is widely accepted not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or anything else. Masseurs in some areas such as Shenzhen have been known to ask for a tip. However, if they become pushy at getting tips most Chinese see this as extortion and an immoral practice, so just be firm if you don't wish to give any.
In China, compliments over service is usually expressed in implicit ways. If you are a smoker, you are expected to pass a cigarette to the service staff or manager. Else, you will be seen as selfish and egocentric. It is common to buy a bartender or pub owner a drink.
Tipping in the wrong way can lead to embarrassment, and can sometimes be insulting, because you are suggesting that the relationship is based on money, not friendship.
Opening a bank account in China is a very straightforward process. The "big four" banks in China are the Bank of China (中国银行), China Construction Bank (中国建设银行), Agricultural Bank of China (中国农业银行) and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (中国工商银行). For locally-owned banks you only need your passport with a valid visa (tourist visas are acceptable). Some banks such as Bank of East Asia will require proof of residence, but this restriction mostly applies to banks based in Hong Kong. For long-term travel or residence, a Chinese bank account is a very good idea. Depending on the bank, the PIN and/or ID may be required for withdrawals at the counter (ask beforehand; some foreign banks only require a signature for withdrawal; if you're not comfortable with that don't open an account there) although deposits can be made no questions asked if you have the bank book or card they issued with your account. Depending on the bank, the minimum initial deposit is ¥1-100 (some multinational banks like Citibank or DBS require five-digit minimum deposits; these banks are to be avoided for the average person). You may receive a bank book in which will record all transactions and balances - including foreign currency balances. However, most banks in big cities offer card-only accounts by default; if you want a bank book you'll have to ask unless they don't issue ATM cards at all (such as Shinhan Bank or Dah Sing Bank) Banks usually charge a fee (around 1%) for depositing and withdrawing money in a different city than the one you opened your account in (if opening with Woori Bank, they offer unlimited ATM withdrawals at any ATM in China until June 2011, and Wing Hang Bank offers free withdrawals anywhere in the world, with the card fee waived until 2014). ATMs are now present in almost all towns and cities except in the most remote areas. Many ATMs accept Visa, Mastercard, AMEX, Maestro, and Plus debit and credit cards although some only accept UnionPay and Pulse, Interac, or Link ATM cards.
Also, in Shanghai, most of the smaller local banks have relations with each other allowing for no-fee interbank deposits for any amount and withdrawals over ¥3000. Also, any Bank of Shanghai deposit-capable ATM can do deposits for any bank with a Shanghai-issued account.
Bank of China - Bank of China ATMs are occasionally the only ATMs where an international bank card will work. This bank has good international banking experience.
China Construction Bank & Bank of America - Bank of America and China Construction Bank have business ties, and because of this, Bank of America customers can use China Construction Bank ATM's without any fees to withdraw RMB.
China Merchants Bank - This bank gets best reviews from expatriates as of July 2009.
Standard Chartered - This bank is also very expat-friendly (it is based in the UK), however branches outside the big cities are lacking. They offer unlimited interbank ATM withdrawals within the city the card was issued in as long as the amount drawn is over ¥2000 each time and they also offer multiple foreign-currency investment products.
Woori Bank - It has even fewer branches than Standard Chartered, but offers the Shanghai Tourist Card, which gives discounts at assorted restaurants and half-price tickets to various attractions, as a debit card. Locally-owned banks only issue this as a credit card, which foreigners can't get, so this is the better choice if traveling to Shanghai. They also offer unlimited free ATM withdrawals anywhere in China. As a Korean bank, they typically cater to Koreans and it shows in the level of customer service.
ICBC Very difficult to get complete bank statements from them. The largest bank in China.
Do note that if you are employed in China, you may not get a choice: many companies and schools deposit into only one bank, and therefore you must have an account with that bank to get paid.
Antiquities Banned From Export
China's government passed a law in May 2007 banning the export of antiques from before 1911. It is thus illegal to take antiques out of China. Even antiques from before 1911 bought in proper auctions cannot be taken out of the country. As violation of this law could lead to heavy fines and a possible jail term, it would be wise to heed it. However if you let vendors know you are aware of this law they may lower their prices since they know you know their "antiques" really aren't Ming Dynasty originals.
As China's emergent middle class finds itself with increasing amounts of disposable income, shopping has become a national pastime. A wide range of goods are available to suit any budget.
Do not expect everything to be cheap. The prices of imported brand name items, such as camping equipment, mountain bikes, mobile phones and electronics, cosmetics, personal care products, sportswear, cheese, chocolate, coffee and milk powder are often higher than overseas. Many Chinese tourists would buy such items in Hong Kong, not in mainland China.
In most brand name shops, upscale malls and supermarkets, the prices already have Value-Added Tax (VAT) and any sales tax included. Thus, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or, perhaps, slightly below especially if you pay cash and do not require a receipt for your purchase. For unmarked goods, there is wide room for bargaining.
Regarding discounts, Chinese make sales using the character: 折 (zhé) which represented the fraction of the original price you pay. For example, 8折 refers to 20% off; 6.5折 is equal to 35% off.
China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite artisanship and partly because labor is still comparatively inexpensive. Take your time, look closely at quality and ask questions, but don't take all the answers at face value! Many visitors come looking for antiques, and hunting in the flea markets can be great fun. The overwhelming majority of the "antique" items you will be shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look and no matter what the vendor says. Do not spend serious money unless you know what you are doing, since novices are almost always taken for a ride.
There are two solutions. Either stick to the cheaper products, some of which are quite nice as keepsakes, or if you do decide to spend a substantial amount, then deal with a large and reputable vendor; you may not get the bargains an expert could find elsewhere, but you probably won't get cheated either.
China is one of the world's leading manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories. Name-brand goods, whether Chinese or foreign, tend to be expensive when compared with the unbranded clothing sold in markets throughout the country. See next section for additional comment. Chinese brands, similar in look, feel and style to their foreign counterparts, are often an excellent deal. Cheap unbranded clothing is also often cheaply manufactured; check the seams and stitching before making a purchase.
Travelers would be wise to try on any item they wish to purchase as sizes tend to be very erratic. Items of clothing which may be a size XL in the U.S. can be anywhere from an L to a XXXL in China. Most nicer stores have a tailor on call who will adjust the length and hem of pants in 15-30 min for free.
There are very affordable tailors anywhere in China. In the major cities, some of them can make a fine job of Western-style garments. Shirts, pants and suits can be measured, fitted, assembled and delivered within three days in many cases. Some tailors have their own fabric selections while others require customers to purchase it in advance from fabric markets. The quality of the tailors, as everywhere, varies widely. More reputable tailors will often come to hotels to do measurements, fittings and final sales.
Items with big worldwide brand labels sold in China may be bogus, especially expensive and exclusive popular brands. By no means all are bogus; virtually all major brands market in China, but some will be unauthorized or downright bogus. If you are buying genuine branded foreign goods, particularly haute couture brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, or popular brands such as Nike or Adidas, be aware that they will not be cheaper than buying them in Western countries. Wealthy Chinese who can afford to travel often purchase luxury brand name goods in Hong Kong or overseas, as it is significantly cheaper than buying them in mainland China.
There are a number of sources of potential knock-offs or fake brand name goods.
Fake brand oddities include items such as a reversible jacket with "Adidas" on one side and "Nike" on the other or shirts with more than one brand. While these might be interesting curiosities, they obviously are not genuine examples of either brand.
There are two basic rules for dealing with expensive brand name goods in China.
Bogus goods can cause legal problems. Selling "pirate" DVDs or forged brand name goods is illegal in China, but enforcement is lax. It is generally much less lax at customs for travelers' home countries. Customs officials will seize pirated DVDs or bogus brand name goods if they find them. Some Western travelers have even reported having to pay hefty fines after being caught returning home with bogus products.
Counterfeit and swing production markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing are nonetheless fantastically amusing and a great place to get a completely new "designer" wardrobe for a fraction of the cost in a Western country. Feel free to purchase these items but remove the tags prior to taking them home. If you have a suitcase full of brand new tagged designer knock-offs or swing produced clothes, you are likely to be hassled by customs. The likely worst case scenario is you will lose the items and receive a fine; the best case scenario is you will lose the items. Simply remove the tags and they will almost certainly go unnoticed with the rest of your belongings.
Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies. The ones that sell for ¥6-10 and come in cheap flat paper envelopes are absolutely certain to be bogus. Some of the ones at higher prices with better packaging might be legal copies, but it can be hard to tell. Probably the best way to avoid bogus discs is to buy at one of the larger bookstores or department stores; most of these have a CD/DVD section. The prices are ¥15-40.
Some good checks, or dead giveaways, for a fake are:
In stores, it is usually acceptable to ask the owner to test the DVD to make sure it works and has the correct language soundtrack.
If you buy DVDs or CDs and plan to take them home, be sure to get a receipt that will prove your good faith to Western customs officers.
There are products that are fairly common in China which you should avoid purchasing - coral, ivory, and parts from endangered animal species. China's economic miracle has been a disaster for the world's wildlife and has left such species as the elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope and Snow Lotus decimated or on the verge of extinction. The city of Pingyao and several markets on the outskirts of Beijing are notorious for selling rare animal skins, furs, claws, horns, skulls, bones, and other parts from endangered (even extinct) species. Anyone purchasing such items is encouraging the further destruction of the species in question.
It is illegal to trade in such products in nearly all countries, including China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement in China is somewhat lax, but anyone buying such products risks serious hassles either when trying to leave China with them or when trying to import them into another country. This can bring substantial fines and/or jail time. So if a store clerk seems eager to sell you a leopard skin or an ivory trinket, use your better judgment and move on.
Ivory is an odd special case. Trade in modern ivory is illegal worldwide, but some antique ivory items are legal. If you want to take any ivory items home, there will be paperwork — at an absolute minimum, you will need a letter from a reputable dealer stating the date of origin. Check with your own country's customs department for other requirements. Also remember that China restricts export of anything older than 1911 (see infobox), and that many of the "ivory" items in China are fakes made from various synthetics or ground bone.
Bargaining is a national passtime in China. You can bargain over almost anything, and sometimes it's even possible to ask for discount in a restaurant at the last minute before you check the bill. Many restaurants or bars will willingly offer a free dish or two (such as a fruit plate in a KTV) if you have made a particularly large order. Shopping malls are less willing to bargain, but why not ask "Will I get a gift?"
Unlike many southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry in China is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese businesses, not westerners running businesses for their own such as seen in places like Bangkok's Khao San Road or Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao. Merchants in touristy areas, particularly street and sidewalk-stall sellers, are masters in exploiting the wallets of foreigners. They can also be very pushy, sometimes even grabbing your hands. Prices are almost always posted, but they are all substantially marked up, normally 2-3 times. Some items like silk fans (largest size: 1'2") are posted as ¥60-75, but the lowest price is actually just ¥10. Therefore it's often better to buy souvenirs somewhere just a few blocks away from the tourist spots. Local Chinese tourists have no issue with posted prices because they are all well trained in the art of bargaining. Foreigners always pay more for everything negotiable in China but remember that Chinese whose accents identify them as being from other provinces also pay higher prices than locals.
The purchasing power of the nouveau riche in China makes the place not always cheap anymore. When you go to tourist spots, it is possible to see a ¥1,000 skirt tailor made by a designer, ¥2,000 per a bag of tea, or dozens of thousands for silverware.
It is hard to tell what price to offer when starting negotiations. Depending on the city, product or market in question, 5% to 50% of the posted price or vendor's first offer is common. Do note that if someone offers you too-great-to-be-true discount, it could be a sign that the goods are of less than great quality. The rule of thumb is to walk around and compare. In tourist spots, it's common to ask for a 30-50% discount, but in a place catering to local people, asking for a 50% discount will only make a fool of yourself.
In a tourist places, don't take what merchants say seriously. When you ask for a 50% discount, they may be appalled and show scorn; it's a favorite drama. Souvenirs, including "antiques", are almost all standard products from factories. Compare more. Do be aware that in tourist markets, the room for negotiation is not as wide as it used to be. With so many tourists all shopping for the same products, vendors know they can make high margins and may not be as amenable to negotiating. If your starting price is too low, they may dismiss you because trying to get the margin they want isn't worth their time.
Souvenirs in some places may have no connection with the history of the place, and change frequently, often appearing to be cheap nick nacks the stallholders association picked up cheap and in bulk from a disposal sale. An example is CiQiKou Ancient Porcelain Village in Shapingba district in Chongqing, on one visit the souvenir stalls had large displays of green Irish shamrock medallions in stock, on a return visit some months later they were all gone, replaced by mexican trinkets.
In this former communist country, most local people still expect a standard price for grocery products and see it as 'black-hearted' (黑心 hēixīn) to charge too much, even if the shops are in a major business district. However, in a tourist place where rental payments are skyrocketing, if someone sells you a bottle of Coca Cola for ¥5 (usually ¥3 in most places), you may have a chance to bargain a little bit too. It sometimes works, but not all the time.
Souvenir shops for jewelry, herbs, and tea recommended by hotel staff can also be tricky. While it is common that the staff takes tourists to places that give them commission, it is also common that they take you to certain places because the establishment actually offers decent products and prices. If you make a show of being overly cautious, it is likely to offend your hosts because you are suggesting a 'good guy' is actually a cheater.
In several places like the Lijiang Ancient City, when the ethnic horse carriage drivers stop by a souvenir shop, assume that you're paying commission. These carriage operators are notoriously known for extorting money from shops, or creating trouble if the shops refuse to pay. The local government usually avoids intervening in these cases where minority ethnic groups are involved.
Many group tours include mandatory visits to Chinese medicine hospitals such as the National Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, silk , tea, or jade factories or similar shops. The goods are often expensive and include a commission for the tour guide or group. Use your judgment if you want to buy anything. However, the shops visited on tours can offer competitive prices and safe, reliable, international shipping for goods like silk and jade.
Areas with large expatriate communities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have specialty grocery stores catering to those communities. These are often no larger than a 7-Eleven. They usually stock imported snacks, alcohol, and specialty groceries such as meats and cheeses and are often very expensive. See individual articles for details.
Several Western-owned supermarket chains are widespread in China - Wal-mart (沃尔玛 Wòěrmǎ), Metro (麦德龙 Màidélóng), and Carrefour (家乐福 Jiālèfú). All have some Western groceries - often at high prices. However, the availability of foreign products diminishes at their branches in second or third-tier cities. Metro is probably the best of these; in particular it usually has a fine selection of alcohol. Asian-owned chains include Jusco (佳世客 Jiāshìkè), RT-Mart (大潤發 Dàrùnfā) , LOTTE Mart (乐天玛特 Letianmate) and SM; these also carry imported goods. Some larger Chinese chains such as Beijing Hualian (北京华联 Běijīng Huálián) also carry a limited selection of foreign products.
While China has experienced a declining trend for smoking, it is still a popular habit and cigarettes (香烟 xiāngyān) are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be purchased from small neighbourhood stores, convenience stores, counters located in supermarkets and in department stores.
Most mainstream Chinese brands sell at around ¥5-20 for a 20-pack. Popular national brands include Zhongnanhai (中南海 zhōngnánhǎi), Honghe (红河 hónghé), Baisha, Nanjing, Liqun, and Double Happiness (双喜 shuāngxǐ). Some local brands sold in certain regions can be much cheaper whilst others are more expensive. Chinese cigarettes are stronger than many foreign cigarettes (13 mg tar is the norm) although Zhongnanhai is popular with foreign visitors, having a similar taste to Marlboro Light but only half the price. Western brands are available including Marlboro (万宝路 wànbǎolù), 555 (三五 sān wǔ), Davidoff (大卫杜夫 dàwèidùfú), Kent, Salem and Parliament. Western cigarettes are a little more expensive - stick to major convenience store chains such as C-Store or Kedi as many smaller stores sell counterfeit or illegally imported cigarettes.
Premium-brand cigarettes are often ridiculously overpriced and are vary rarely smoked personally - they are usually offered as gifts or bribes as an expression of wealth. The two most famous 'premium brands' include Zhonghua (中华 zhōnghuá) (¥60-100) and Panda (¥100). If you choose to buy them then stick to major department stores - those sold in neighbourhood cigarette stores are likely to be fake. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters (打火机 dǎhuǒjī) are usually cheap (about ¥1) but flimsily made. Zippos are widely available but expensive.
Cigars can be bought from some specialist tobacco stores and Chinese-made cigars are surprisingly good - expect to pay around ¥20-30 for 10 locally produced cigars. Beware of fake western-brand cigars sold in bar-districts; they are usually terrible and ridiculously overpriced. Genuine Cuban cigars are available in cigar bars and upscale establishments in large cities but are often very expensive.
Duty-free stores in international airports, international rail stations (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou East) and at land borders sell a greater range of imported brands - expect to pay between ¥80-150 for a 200-cigarette carton.
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