Background China is estimated to have had the largest number of people with diabetes in the world in 2015, with extrapolation of existing data suggesting that this situation will continue until at least 2030. Type 2 diabetes has been reported to be more prevalent among people with low socioeconomic status (SES) in high-income countries, whereas the opposite pattern has been found in studies from low-and middle-income countries. We conducted a systematic review to describe the cross-sectional association between SES and prevalence of type 2 diabetes in Chinese in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Methods We conducted a systematic literature search in Medline, Embase and Global Health electronic databases for English language studies reporting prevalence or odds ratio for type 2 diabetes in a Chinese population for different SES groups measured by education, income and occupation. We appraised the quality of included studies using a modified Newcastle-Ottawa Scale. Heterogeneity of studies precluded meta-analyses, therefore we summarized study results using a narrative synthesis. Results Thirty-three studies met the inclusion criteria and were included in the systematic review. The association between education, income and occupation and type 2 diabetes was reported by 27, 19 and 12 studies, respectively. Most, but not all, studies reported an inverse association between education and type 2 diabetes, with odds ratios (OR) and 95% confidence interval (CI) ranging from 0.39 (CI not reported) to 1.52 (0.91 -2.54) for the highest compared to the lowest education level. The association between income and type 2 diabetes was inconsistent between studies. Only a small number of studies identified a significant association between occupation and type 2 diabetes. Retired people and people working in white collar jobs were reported to have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes than other occupational groups even after adjusting for age. Conclusions This first systematic review of the association between individual SES and prevalence of type 2 diabetes in China found that low education is probably associated with an increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes, while the association between income and occupation and type 2 diabetes is unclear.