China Unicom (Hong Kong) Ltd, the country's second-largest telecom operator by subscriber numbers, said it has large stocks of Apple Inc's iPhone 4S handsets available for purchase.
That's despite Apple's Chinese stores halting supplies of the device and scalpers charging a markup of as much as 1,000 yuan ($158) for each handset.
"Most Chinese people buy an iPhone device through China Unicom's channels, so it (the sales suspension in Apple's brick and mortar stores) has had a limited impact on the performance of the iPhone 4S in China," said Li Gang, deputy general manager of the parent company, China United Network Communications Group Co Ltd, on Wednesday.
He added that since the iPhone 4S made its Chinese debut on Friday, the market performance has surpassed that of its predecessor, the iPhone 4, but he declined to reveal specific sales numbers.
"China Unicom is the world's second-biggest cooperation partner with Apple, second only to the US-based AT&T," said Li. The carrier, which is the sole Chinese telecom operator selling iPhones on contract, has taken advantage of the massive domestic appetite for Apple products and has enjoyed a boost in terms of the number of third-generation (3G) network users.
China Unicom had more than 40 million subscribers to its 3G services by the end of December, according to Li. The company set a target of adding 25 million 3G users in 2011, and the result "has met our target", Li said.
He said China Unicom hopes to become the No 1 player in China's 3G market in 2012, but did not outline specific measures the company will use to reach that target.
Apple announced on Friday that the iPhone 4S will not be available in stores in Beijing and Shanghai "for the time being", after angry shoppers pelted the company's store in the capital's upmarket Sanlitun area with eggs and quarrels broke out between scalpers and security guards.
But the latest iPhone is still available online, through China Unicom's retail outlets or at official Apple resellers.
Sun Kai, a telecom analyst with the researcher GfK Group, said that, compared with the launch of the iPhone 4 in 2010, the supply volume of the iPhone 4S is much greater. In Beijing's various shopping centers, even in supermarkets such those operated by Wal-mart Stores Inc, shoppers can easily find and purchase an iPhone 4S without pre-ordering.
Cong Xin, an employee at a branch of Sundan Electronic Store in Beijing, which is an authorized Apple retailer and is located close to Apple's Sanlitun store, said that on the launch day his store had more than 300 handsets in stock and about 200 of the devices were sold within a period of four hours.
Sundan charges 5,488 yuan for a 16G iPhone 4S, which is 500 yuan higher than the official retail price.
"Scalpers could suffer if they stockpile the iPhone 4S, because they will soon discover that authorized retailers will offer the handsets at a more competitive price," said Sun.
Wang Jinxin, an iPhone forum master at Baidu Tieba, the biggest online Chinese community provided by the search engine giant Baidu Inc, said scalpers often charge an extra 800 to 1,000 yuan for an iPhone 4S.