Scratch that. Do over. An overly expensive, Wi-Fi crippled version of the iPhone eventually went on sale in China, where over 2 million cheaper, unlocked, gray-market iPhones with functioning Wi-Fi have already been sold over the last couple years, and weren't found to be terribly competitive?
Either way, China remains a billion-user market, and Apple needed to get a foot in the door. Sure, they likely wanted a much bigger initial foot, but when the next version of China Unicom's iPhone, with Wi-Fi (and hopefully more competitive rates) becomes available, maybe... they'll see some slow, steady growth in that general direction?
[Thanks Icebike for the tip!]