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How Apple Could Deliver a Chinese New Year’s Surprise

Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook reacts at an event celebrating the launching of Apple's iPhone on China Mobile's network in BeijingApple Inc. CEO Tim Cook reacts at an event celebrating the launching of Apple's iPhone on China Mobile's network in Beijing
Apple CEO Tim Cook celebrates the launch of Apple's iPhone on China Mobile's network in January 2014.Photograph by Kim Kyung Hoon — Reuters

China Mobile reported last week that it added a whopping 24.8 million new 4G subscriptions in February, a Chinese New Year bump whose biggest beneficiary is likely to be Apple.

China Mobile is China’s—and the world’s—largest mobile phone operator, with 830 million subscribers. For the past year, it has been rapidly converting its 3G customer base to the 4G speeds needed to take full advantage of modern smartphones. At the end of February, it had 360 million 4G subs, up from 123 million a year earlier. (See chart below.)

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Apple is China’s most popular smartphone brand, with a 25% market share at the end of January, according to Kantar. If it maintains that share, and if China Mobile’s 4G growth continues unabated, Apple (AAPL) could finish the March quarter, by one estimate, with iPhone sales up 38% year over year.

That would be considerably better than expected. Wall Street is looking for worldwide iPhone sales this quarter to decline 10% to 20% year over year, no matter what happens in China.