The iPhone gets two footholds in China

May 29, 2008, 3:38 PM UTC

It’s not China Mobile — and it’s not the mainland — but it’s a start.

Hutchison Telecom, a small Hong Kong-based carrier controlled by Li Ka-shing (more on him below), announced on Thursday that it had struck a deal with Apple (AAPL) to bring the iPhone to Hong Kong and Macau, two former colonies that are now special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China.

Hutchison (HTX) played an important role in the early days of mobile telephony. In 1994 it launched the Orange brand in the U.K. and in 1997 invested heavily in VoiceStream (now T-Mobile) in the U.S. By 2000 it had sold its interests in both companies and was using the proceeds to develop a global 3G business. Last year it sold controlling interest in its popular “Hutch” product in India to Vodafone for $13.1 billion.

In addition to Hong Kong and Macau, it offers 2G and 3G services in Australia, Ghana, Indonesia, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Li Ka-shing — nicknamed “Superman” by the Hong Kong business press — is the picture of a 21st century tycoon. According to Wikipedia, he is the eleventh richest man in the world and the richest person of Chinese descent, with an estimated wealth of $26.5 billion.