The inaugural event saw WorldTour action return to China for the first time since 2014 and kicked off with two laps of a Beihai Circuit.
Van Poppel looked to force his way through on the extreme right hand side of the finishing straight and was able to grab a top 10 as the sprinters all hit the line together.
Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) did just enough to edge clear and claim an opening victory, along with the race lead. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) rounded out the podium places.
The bunch finish allowed Team Sky’s main GC hopes, Wout Poels and Mikel Landa, to finish comfortably on the same time as the day’s winner. The sprint-heavy event looks set to be decided on Sunday’s stage four summit finish.
Fought out over 107.4 kilometres, after a fast start and some initial resistance from the peloton, four riders were able to push clear and carve out an advantage.
Remi Cavagna (Quick-Step Floors) was the final breakaway member to be reeled in after attacking following the final intermediate sprint. The Frenchman was joined briefly off the front by Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural-RGA) but there was no holding off the peloton, as the race came back together with 4km to go.