Controversy over ex-Google China chief

December 2, 2011: 1:15 PM ET

The prominent technology executive Kai-fu Lee has been accused of overstating his relationships with Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Now, he's hitting back.

By Bill Powell, editor-at-large

kai-fu_leeFORTUNE -- A noted whistle blower in Beijing, Fang Zhouzi, who's main impact previously has been to call out academic fraud and plagiarism in China (both of which are rampant) has turned his rhetorical guns on an unusual target: high profile technology executive Kai-fu Lee. Lee is the former head of Google in China who now runs Innovation Works, a prominent angel investment fund with several notbale backers, including Steve Chen, cofounder of Youtube, and Terry Gou, CEO of Foxconn.

The controversy, which has played out this week on Sina Weibo, the so-called Twitter of China, focuses on whether in his autobiography, The World is Different Because of You, Lee exaggerates his resume and makes claims about relationships with famous people (specifically, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates), which aren't quite true.

For example: Fang quotes Lee as saying that when he attended Columbia University in the early 1980s, he had a political science class in which one of the other students was Barack Obama. He says he and Obama used to both "fall asleep" in class. Fang notes that Lee was a computer science major and wonders how it was he could have taken a political science course with Obama. In response, Lee posted his transcript from Columbia showing he did indeed take a poli sci class but backs off the Obama-and-I-were-bored-together claim. He writes, somewhat lamely, that he himself actually didn't remember Obama being in class, but that other classmates later said to him, when Obama was running for President, "do you remember this guy from political science class?"

Regarding Gates and Microsoft (MSFT), where he worked before moving to Google (GOOG) in 2005, Lee wrote that while there was on a committee of seven executives who advised the CEO about product development and strategy. Fang accuses Lee of inflating his own importance and the importance of this group. (The New York Times, however, wrote a story about it in 2001, and specifically named Lee.) Fang writes that Lee's name doesn t appear in Microsoft's annual reports from that era, while 21 senior vice presidents are listed. Lee this week said he never made any claims about being particularly close or influential with Gates. "I never said I was one of the senior most eight executives at Microsoft," he wrote on his microblog.

(It is worth noting that Microsoft considered Lee important enough that when Google hired him, the company filed a high-profile lawsuit alleging that Lee was violating a non-compete agreement. The suit was settled out of court.)

Fang also mocks Lee for calling himself a "student" of Steve Jobs" in his book, pointing out that he worked at Apple (AAPL) after Jobs had left the first time around but before he returned. "So how can you call yourself a Jobs student," Fang asks. But in his book, Lee simply says in the past "20 years I m very honored and lucky to study and grow near to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt." Whether Lee was "very near" to Jobs is not clear, but the late Apple founder did call Lee in Beijing before he took the Google job in 2005 to try to get him to come to Apple. Plainly, they had some relationship. And as for "studying" Jobs, well, who in Silicon Valley over the last 30 years didn't, whether working with him at Apple or competing against him elsewhere? To publicly flog Lee for that relatively innocuous sentence in his book seems a bit much.

Given that Fang is best known in China for his work illuminating academic fraud, it was perhaps inevitable that he would try to score a point about Lee's days as a professor in the U.S. Fang notes that Lee claimed that he had been an "associate professor" in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and that he says the "youngest" associate professor ever at that prestigious school. "If I stuck to that for [job] several years," Lee wrote in his book, "I could get a tenured position." In truth, "the so called associate professor was merely an assistant professor," Fang sneers.

That's true. And if he were writing about some professor who had just won a Nobel Prize in something or other, maybe that little resume padding might matter a bit. As it is, it hardly seems of consequence for a high powered tech VC in Beijing. Kai-fu Lee, whatever his alleged transgressions in his autobiography, most certainly doesn't need a job in academia anymore.

In the mean time, Beijing News reports that Kai-fu Lee has decided to provide the English version of his biography for free on Amazon (AMZN) to allow people to decide for themselves.

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