Els was joined atop the leaderboard by Peter Lawrie, Eddie Lee, Larry Austin, Simon Wakefield, and Frenchmen Raphael Jacquelin and Jean Van de Velde.
Soren Hansen, Carlos Rodiles, Jeev Milkha Singh and Richard Sterne share eighth place at 3-under-par 69.
Els got off to a quick start with birdies on the first and second at Tomson Shanghai Pudong Golf Club. The South African moved to 3 under with a birdie at the par-4 sixth.
The third-ranked player in the world tripped to a bogey on the seventh, but came right back with a birdie on No. 8. Els made it two in a row as his birdie try at the ninth found the bottom of the cup.
Around the turn, Els birdied the par-5 13th to join the leaders at minus-5. He parred his final five holes to remain there.
Austin began his round on the back nine and collected his first two birdies at 13 and 14. He climbed to 3 under as his birdie putt at the par-4 first fell into the cup. Austin carded birdies on the sixth and ninth to cap a bogey-free round.
Wakefield matched Els' start with birdies on each of the first two holes. The Englishman reeled off 10 consecutive pars around the turn before posting an eagle on the 13th. Wakefield came right back with a birdie on the 14th to tie for the lead.
Lee started with a birdie on the first. The New Zealander ran in an eagle attempt at the ninth before a birdie on No. 10 moved him to 4 under. Lee took the lead at 6 under with birdies on 13 and 15, but slipped back into a share of the lead after a bogey at the par-3 17th.
Lawrie got off to a flying start on the back nine. The Irishman birdied the par-4 11th. He then sank three straight birdies attempts from the 13th.
Around the turn, Lawrie jumped to 6 under with birdies on one and two. After he tripped to bogeys on the fourth and sixth, Lawrie joined the leaders at 5 under after he birdied the par-5 ninth, his last.
Jacquelin torched the back nine at Tomson Shanghai Pudong Golf Club. He ran home three straight birdies putts from the par-4 11th. He birdied three consecutive holes from the 16th to climb into the lead at 6 under.
The Frenchman stumbled to a bogey at the fourth. Jacquelin erased that mistake with a birdie on the sixth, but he faltered to another bogey on eight before a par at the last gave him a share of the lead.
'I put the ball in play which is what you have to do around here and I put a lot of iron shots very close to the pin and I made two long putts as well,' said Jacquelin. 'But on my back nine I wasn't so good with the driver and that is the key to this course.'
Van de Velde, remembered most for his collapse in the 1999 British Open Championship, cruised to eight consecutive pars to open his round. He then birdied the ninth and 11th.
Van de Velde, playing on a sponsors exemption, dropped a shot at the 12th, but bounced back with an eagle on the 13th. The Frenchman converted back-to-back birdie putts from the 15th to join the other leaders at 5 under.
'I am doing not too badly,' said Van de Velde, who battled serious leg problems that forced him to miss significant time last year. 'I have realized that I must not have made any enemies along the way, so that is pretty good. I really truly appreciate the people helping me and showing me their support.'
Defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez heads a group of 18 players at 2-under-par 70. Also in that group are such notables as Anders Hansen, Peter O'Malley, Jyoti Randhawa, Luke Donald and Lian-Wei Zhang.