By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
December 10, 2009

The chairman of China Unicom finally has some sales figures to report

The numbers coming out of China since Apple (AAPL) launched the iPhone in the world’s largest cell phone market have been dismal.

China Unicom (CHU) said it signed up 5,000 iPhone subscribers in the first weekend — a number widely reported as total sales. This was followed by reports that only five iPhones had been sold through a new website dedicated to online sales. Then on Wednesday Marbridge Consulting reported that in 40 days, China Unicom had sold only 10,000 iPhones — a number, that if true, would be pretty unimpressive in a country that boasts more than 720 million mobile phones.

Happily for Apple, it wasn’t true. iPhonAsia‘s Dan Butterfield did a follow-up and discovered that a digit had been dropped in translation. The correct figure, according to China Unicom chairman Chang Xiaobing, who spoke to the media in Hong Kong Tuesday, is 100,000 iPhones in 40 days.

In that interview Chang castigated the press for focusing on the contract-free price of the iPhone in China ($1,033 for a 32G iPhone 3GS), rather than the subsidized prices under eight different monthly plans, four of which bring the sticker price down to $0.

And although Chang described reports that China Unicom had contracted with Apple to buy 5 million iPhones over five years as “not entirely accurate,” he added, according to Butterfield, that the company is rethinking its marketing strategy and could end up selling more that 5 million iPhones.

Butterfield points out that Chang expressed similar sentiments when he talked about iPhone sales in a Nov. 16 interview on Bloomberg TV Asia Pacific. The video is copied below. In an earlier post, Butterfield described a Chinese advertising campaign that began in earnest shortly after that interview.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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