The original Iggy Pop version of this song didn't have the famous oriental guitar riff that featured on Bowie's recording. Bowie's version was produced by Nile Rodgers, who came up with that guitar riff.
According to Rodgers, they had finished recording the song "Let's Dance
," and Bowie game him a recording of the original "China Girl," explaining that it could be a hit if they could come up with a hook. Rodgers went literal, playing off the word "China" to come up with the riff, which he knew bordered on parody. Said Rodgers: "David was either going to hate this so much he would fire me, or he was going to get the comedic value of writing this silly little poppy thing."
Rodgers was nervous when he played Bowie the riff, but David loved it straightaway. With this riff and a much smoother production, the song sounded little like Iggy Pop's version, and the song became a hit.