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Party over for Beijing's Google set

By Lara Farrar, special to CNN
The doors are still open at Google's Beijing office despite the raft of rumors and questions over what is happening there in the aftermath of the company's decision to move its search operations out of China.
The doors are still open at Google's Beijing office despite the raft of rumors and questions over what is happening there in the aftermath of the company's decision to move its search operations out of China.
  • A chorus line of top talent has left Google China in the months since its row with Beijing
  • "Every few months there (were) ... discussions -- 'Why are we in China again?' "
  • Google on employee departures: "We respect their decision and wish them good luck"

Beijing, China (CNN) -- While all eyes of the tech world were on Google's annual developer's conference in San Francisco last week, a recent gathering of the intelligentsia in the world's largest Internet market went unnoticed.

"Would you like a Sex on the Beach?" asked the Google China employee behind table covered with copious amounts of wine and liquor as guests arrived in waves -- women in short, summer cocktail dresses and men in untucked shirts and jeans.

The Google-China battle over censorship and attacks from Chinese hackers has largely fallen from the headlines after its March decision to move its search operations out of China. But for the Beijing 'Googlers' that remain, the saga continues as they see their once high cache dwindle and colleagues from the top down depart.

"Google had this halo of exceptionality around it," said Dan Brody, who was the first employee hired by Google China in 2005.

"The important thing to remember, like with any other country on the planet, when you try to get hired by Google, you feel so special," said Brody, who worked on strategic partnerships for Google in China before leaving in 2008 to join another Web company in Beijing. "The [new] corporate policy with China hit a lot of Chinese employees like a bucket of cold water in terms of not feeling the love from corporate headquarters."

Moreover, former employees said the initial excitement and optimism when Google entered the China search market in 2005 was beset by ambivalence from company leaders in Mountain View from the start.

"Every few months there would be senior level discussions -- 'Why are we in China again?' -- from the very beginning," said Andy Tian, a former employee at Google China in charge of strategic partnerships in the mobile industry. "As Google grew in China and the issues only got bigger, the more you did, the more the people in the US felt like you were compromising."

Taking up two floors of a villa in an exclusive apartment complex in central Beijing on a recent Saturday, the so-called "Google networking party" was the talk of the town among tech circles. Anyone who was anybody -- Google employee, or not -- attended.

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For those outside the Google circle, the Beijing technology community was curious: What, exactly, are they working on after Google decided to shut down its Internet search engine in China and redirect users to its uncensored search engine in Hong Kong. All most know is that the doors to Google's Beijing offices are open, employees are showing up and they are working -- on something.

And they are also partying -- with each other and with employees from some of China's biggest Web companies, including what was once Google's main competitor on the mainland: the search giant Baidu.

On the second floor, a patio overlooking Beijing's always congested highways, a current employee was reticent to discuss the one thing Google outsiders (like this reporter) wanted to know: What's going on with Google in China now that is closed?

"I will talk to you about Google when I leave Google," said the employee who declined to be quoted by name.

Google acknowledges that stories are rife about what remains of their operations in Beijing and Shanghai, where they also have offices. According to a company statement posted online in Chinese titled "Clearing Up the Rumors," reports that offices have been closed and employees will be laid off are "simply not true."

"Googlers working in China are in their offices as before, brainstorming products and talking to clients," the statement, which was posted in January, said. (In response to questions raised about the current work in Beijing, a Google spokesperson directed CNN to the online post.)

In its now infamous "New Approach to China" blog post, Google said it would retain its research and development team and sales force here. Most recently, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said at a shareholders meeting last week in San Francisco that the situation in China "seems to be stable."

Far from company sanctioned, the party was organized by an ex-Googler named Jeremy Chau who, after working for the search giant for nearly a decade, left to start an angel investment fund for tech start-ups in 2008.

"This party had nothing to do with Google. I quit Google. I am not trying to recruit anyone from Google right now," Chau said after the party.

Other Chinese companies, however, are, as a chorus line of top talent has left the company. Google China's engineering director Wang Jin joined Baidu in April followed by Zheng Zibin, former technical director of Google China. Song Zhongjia, Google China general sales manager, is now the CEO of the Chinese lifestyle website

Google, however, says the "leadership team" of its China operations remains intact. But for employees planning their own Google China departure, the search giant told CNN "we respect their decision and wish them good luck."

Every few months there would be senior level discussions -- 'Why are we in China again?' -- from the very beginning
--Former Google China employee Andy Tian
  • China
  • Google Inc.

"Yeah, of course I receive a lot of calls (from headhunters)," said a former Google employee now working as a human resources manager for a multinational firm that sells networking products. She asked not to be named because she's not authorized to speak to the press. "They will ask if I still work for Google, and if I know someone who is currently working for Google but willing to explore more opportunities outside."

But the "love from corporate headquarters" for its China operations has been lukewarm, at best, for years, according to interviews with several ex-Googlers. For one, Google's operations here have historically generated only around 5 percent of total revenues for the company.

"They didn't take it very seriously," said one of Google's top scientists who recruited away by Baidu. "Because revenues from China were so small, it was not a big deal for them. That is why I thought I needed to move."

"(At Baidu) they are all Chinese, and they trust my capabilities," he said. "I can put what I learned into practice."

To be sure, many Beijing employees still working for Google say they are content. Yes, top talent has left and the sales team has largely dissolved. But staff is now working on globally focused products, instead of China-specific ones. And Google is still Google, after all.

"Most people are pretty happy," said a Googler who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Google is still in a unique position in China. You cannot find any company as open as Google. A lot of exciting products are being developed, so a lot of things are going on. It is very exciting working here."

The China team, Google says, has always worked on both global and local projects and continues to do so: "As a result, saying they couldn't get projects approved by the US isn't true," a company spokesperson told CNN.

Still, the disappointment for many is still palpable. The fallout from the search engine's departure has meant an end to programs employees had been working on for years.

"Back in the sunny place called California, where there is lots of sunshine and people smile at you on the road and everything is great and where you enjoy your market share and where everyone treats you like God, you want to stick to your principles," Tian said.

"You don't appreciate the people who are here in China ... life is harder here. Life is different, and people in the States don't see that. They don't appreciate that," Tian said. "They see their so-called principles are getting bent and they don't like that."