Djokovic, 25, took the first set with ease, but lost the second on a tiebreak after hitting several unforced errors against the left-hander, ranked 123rd in the ATP standings, before improving his groundstrokes for the decider.
“I had a tough time to really return his serve in the second, because he went for precision more than the speed of his first serves,” Djokovic said. “He had a very high percentage of first serves in and he put a lot of pressure on my serves. I tried to stay closer to the line in the third, and it worked.”
The No. 1 seed has won the China Open on the two occasions he has entered, in 2009 and 2010, but missed last year because of injury.
Elsewhere, third-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France battled to a three-set victory over Uzbekistan’s unseeded Denis Istomin.
The world No. 7 lost the first set, but came back to win 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7/3).
Tsonga’s countryman, Julien Benneteau, who lost in the final of the Malaysian Open on Sunday, was forced to retire two games into the second set, handing Italy’s Andreas Seppi the easiest of routes to the second round.