Graeme McDowell set the pace after posting five-under-par 67, while two shots back was Clark, who joined a six-way tie for second place.
It was a steady day for the South African, who began on the front nine with a run of three birdies in his first four holes. Sheshan International Golf Course is a real test and it bit back at the 2014 RBC Canadian Open champion.
“The season is winding down and everyone’s bodies are a bit tired, but I was excited about the prospect of playing this week and I enjoyed the round today. This is the end of the year for me and it’s a really big tournament. For us PGA Tour guys this counts towards the2015 season and it’s nice to be in the mix right now,” he said.
Windy conditions made it tough to score and the toughness of the course led to a day of give-and-take for Clark. In total he made seven birdies and four bogeys to finish on three-under-par.
“Today was tough and the course played extremely long. I hit a lot of woods and hybrids, but I was focused on making the fairways. I was pretty happy with what I was able to do in the cold and wind,” he said.
One shot further back was Louis Oosthuizen, who did well after starting the day at two-over through three holes. The 2010 Open Champion birdied 14, 15 and 16 for a comeback of note and finished the round in a share of eighth place.
Joining their countryman were Jaco van Zyl and Dawie van der Walt, who each carded 70 for the first round.
Van Zyl has just returned to competitive golf after spending four months recovering from surgery on both of his knees, but on Thursday he showed no signs of trouble on his way to a two-under-par first round.