In "Europe Without Hotels," Benji Lanyadoof the New York Times spotlights online short-term rental services that allow individuals to turn their homes into mini-bed & breakfasts. He uses several of these sites to book affordable, centrally located "social B&B" stays in Paris, London and Barcelona ("social" as in "online social networking").
Following the ever-rising social networking curve, sites like AirBnB.com, iStopOver.com and Crashpadder.com are connecting budget-conscious travelers with people around the world—though of the three, only AirBnB presently offers more than a smattering of offerings in China. (It's also the largest worldwide, as Lenyado notes: "As the first web site of its kind to grab the headlines, the system has already developed a large and loyal user base.)
Lanyado, a former devotee of CouchSurfing.org (a free social network that hooks backpackers up with free stays that currently lists over 18,000 "couches" to sleep on in China), finds that his maturing tastes (a bit of privacy and modest expectations regarding basic upkeep and cleanliness) have been rewarded by these "social B&Bs," which are not only affordable but also can provide travelers with a high degree of flexibility, privacy and comfort, often in prime locations.
We took a quick look at what's available in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, and found some appealing possibilities.
In Shanghai, a search on AirBnB produces 21 listings (one place is actually in Suzhou), running from a $10/nightfor a place about 21km from central Shanghai to an old French Concession apartment that, for around $100/night comes complete with "Geoff, the 50 year-old Shanghainese butler" and an "extremely excitable boxer" named Ruby. This in addition to a private room with an en suite bathroom, a balcony and a lovely-sounding set of amenities that, for the prime location on Xinle Lu, would indeed set you back more than a hundred bucks--"Geoff is a legend and an absolute darling who will take care of all your needs, from doing your laundry (you have never seen such crisp ironing!), running those pesky errands like buying train tickets and posting postcards and providing a great continental breakfast, all included in the room price" (not to mention perhaps giving certain folks a bit of a colonialist's thrill).
AirBnB only lists 12 Beijing rooms as of the date of our search, starting at $19/night for a room in a Chaoyang university campus apartment shared with a friendly-sounding small family ("we won't disturb u out of politeness. and u could always come to us should u have any question or just wanna have a chat in Chinese or English!") to a whopping $220/night for a rather sterile-looking Beijing CBD service apartment (seriously, at that point... you might just opt for a nice hotel).
Finally, an AirBnB Hong Kong searchgives you 17 places to choose from. Gone are the dirt-cheap options, with choices running between $25 for a bed in a Kowloon flat to $250 for a swanky luxury pad (though the owner seems a bit confused about the AirBnB mission; it sounds as if he's simply seeking a long-term share to help out with the rent, not plugging into a global travel trend with much awareness).
Given all that, it's clear the Social B&B market has a way to go in China, though Shanghai seems fairly well developed based on its AirBnB offerings. The site features user comments to supplement info and photos provided by hosts, but you're still running the risk of having to deal with a difficult personality on their literal home turf. And in many cities, short-term subletting isn't strictly legal (in China, technically visitors are supposed to register the address of their hotel or temporary residence with police, though it's not rigorously enforced).
The pros? A chance to mainline local culture (Lanyado stays with a Parisian chef who points him in delicious directions), save some money and deal directly with a local resident rather than a hotel desk. Though clearly not for all, it's a nice addition to the range of options for tourists in China.