With the iPhone launch on the biggest carrier in the world’s most populated market confirmed for 18th DecemberFortune spotted what appears to have been a soft launch in the city of Suzhou. The city is one of the richest in China, so would be a logical place for an early launch.

The attached screen grab comes from a website owned by a subsidiary of China Mobile Limited in Suzhou, a city of 5 million just west of Shanghai.

The site went live late Monday local time, when it began taking pre-orders for the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C … 

The webpage didn’t last long, quickly replaced with a notice stating that the reservation page would re-open later.

China is a massively important market for Apple, and China Mobile key to capturing it: the carrier has more than 700 million subscribers and, crucially for Apple, most of the wealthier ones.

One analyst has estimated that China and Japan between them could be worth an extra 38M iPhone sales to Apple, while  another has predicted 70M sales from China Mobile alone.

Only Apple and China Mobile know the terms of the deal between them, but Bloomberg suggested back in September that Apple may have found itself in an unusually weak bargaining position given the importance of the tie-in.

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Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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