Microsoft's top executive in China resigned to head the National Basketball Association's operations in the world's most populous country...

Microsoft’s top executive in China resigned to head the National Basketball Association’s operations in the world’s most populous country.

Tim Chen will head the NBA’s business in the Greater China region, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, beginning Oct. 15, the NBA said today, citing Commissioner David Stern. Microsoft said it has begun searching for a replacement.

Chen’s departure underscores Microsoft’s difficulty hanging on to executives in the world’s fastest growing major economy. Since 2002, former China heads have defected to online game company Shanda Interactive Entertainment and News Corp.’s Star Group. In 2005, Microsoft sued Google after the Web search company recruited away Lee Kai-Fu to head its China operations.

“Microsoft is a big name and so their China executives are targets for a lot of companies,” said Liu Bin, a technology analyst at Beijing-based research company BDA China, “There are a scarce number of executives that have experience in multinationals and an understanding of the Chinese market.”

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Chen, who has a master of business administration degree from the University of Chicago, was head of Motorola’s China operations between 2001 and 2003, the NBA said.

Microsoft named Ya-Qin Zhang as acting chief executive officer of its operations in the nation. Zhang is chairman of Microsoft’s research and development group in China, the division that Lee Kai-Fu established.

The NBA is targeting China to boost revenue following the popularity of Chinese national Yao Ming, the top draft pick in 2002. The Chinese sports ministry says there are 300 million basketball players in the country and it is the most popular sport among youths.

Mark Fischer, managing director of NBA China, will be promoted to senior vice president, today’s statement said.