By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
August 4, 2009

Either there’s a last-minute hitch that requires high-level intervention, or preparations to sell iPhones in China have entered their final stages.

“Senior officials from Apple Inc are to visit China this week, and they haven’t arrived in Beijing yet,” an unnamed “informed source” told the website Monday night.

“Their visit aims to visit (sic) senior officials of China Unicom and discuss with them how iPhone should enter Chinese market,” the source said, adding that Apple’s representatives may also meet senior officials from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

In early March, a delegation from China Unicom flew to Cupertino to meet with a team led by Greg Joswiak, Apple (AAPL) vice president for iPhone product marketing. According to a report in Monday’s International Business Times, Joswiak is expected to represent Apple in this week’s negotiations as well.

China, with more than 600 million subscribers, is the world’s largest cellphone market and the last major hurdle in Steve Jobs’ grand plan to blanket the globe with iPhones.

In mid-July, China Business Network reported that Hon Hai, Apple’s Taiwanese manufacturing partner, had brokered a deal with the Chinese government and had already started assembling, under its Foxconn label, a special Wi-Fi-free version of the iPhone 3G. Such a phone would enable Apple to get around Beijing’s restrictions on handsets with high-speed Internet capability.

Shanghai Security News
reported last week that Apple and China Unicom had finally inked a three-year agreement — a report a China Unicom spokesperson quickly undercut by telling the wire services that negotiations were still ongoing.

Meanwhile, has posted photos, with identifying marks blurred out, of what it claims are Chinese-language iPhones. And Tech.QQ, another plugged-in Chinese blog, has posted details of the deal, including the price China Unicom will reportedly pay Apple for each phone (3,000 CNY; $439) and its first-year sales target (1 million units).

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