Cities, contributing more than 75% of global carbon emissions, are at the heart of climate change mitigation. Given cities' heterogeneity, they need specific low-carbon roadmaps instead of one-size-fits-all approaches. Here, we present the most detailed and up-to-date accounts of CO2 emissions for 294 cities in China and examine the extent to which their economic growth was decoupled from emissions. Results show that from 2005 to 2015, only 11% of cities exhibited strong decoupling, whereas 65.6% showed weak decoupling, and 23.4% showed no decoupling. We attribute the economic-emission decoupling in cities to several socioeconomic factors (i.e., structure and size of the economy, emission intensity, and population size) and find that the decline in emission intensity via improvement in production and carbon efficiency (e.g., decarbonizing the energy mix via building a renewable energy system) is the most important one. The experience and status quo of carbon emissions and emission-GDP (gross domestic product) decoupling in Chinese cities may have implications for other developing economies to design low-carbon development pathways.