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Last updated: September 4, 2009 8:34 pm

Google’s head of China resigns

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The head of Google’s operations in China quit on Friday, ending a controversial four-year tenure that saw the company censored version of its search engine to gain a foothold in the most populous internet market.

The departure of Kai-Fu Lee comes close on the heels of a renewed debate inside the company about whether Google should pull out of China – a discussion prompted by the latest flare-up of its battle with the Chinese authorities, according to people close to the situation.

That running debate has remained unresolved since the US company introduced a local, censored version of its search engine, Google.cn. Co-founder Sergey Brin in particular is still said by associates to be troubled by the company’s involvement in censorship.

“There are senior people who still wonder about the wisdom and morality of being there,” said one person close to the company’s thinking.

But there was no indication on Friday that Mr Lee’s departure was tied to a change of heart over Google’s presence in China. Alan Eustace, senior vice-president for engineering, credited him with “helping dramatically to im­prove the quality and range of services that we offer in China”.

Mr Lee, a former Microsoft executive, is one of the most prominent figures in the Chinese internet world and enjoys rock-star status in university engineering departments across the country.

His departure from Microsoft became an early lightning rod in the company’s rivalry with Google, prompting lawsuits and angry accusations from each side.

After launching Google.cn, he was able to gain a foothold for the US search engine inside the country, although the company has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to make deeper inroads into the market share
of Baidu, the local market leader.

Independent research firms put Google’s share of the Chinese search market at about 30 per cent, although internal measures suggest it is only a little more than 20 per cent, according to one person close to the company.

Google has faced several official actions that have served to cap any gains in market share it has managed to achieve. In June, it was ordered to suspend some features on Google.cn over allegations it allowed pornographic content.

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