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Originally published Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 10:03 PM

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Despite friction in China, Google digs in

Google may appear to be under siege in China, but a sense of normalcy — Google style — pervades the company's headquarters here, despite its continuing skirmishes with the Chinese government that began more than a year ago.

San Jose Mercury News

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BEIJING — Google may appear to be under siege in China, but a sense of normalcy — Google style — pervades the company's headquarters here.

Googlers, when they are aren't writing codes or working on new advertising strategies, line up for five-star meals, attend in-house yoga classes and pedal mini bicycles down hallways at the 10-floor outpost.

The Mountain View, Calif., search giant recently opened the doors of its Beijing facility to give a rare glimpse of its operations since its continuing skirmishes with the Chinese government got under way more than a year ago.

"There have been some changes," said Xi Cheng, an Oxford-educated Googler working on the translate team and one of scores of brainiacs that still populate the company's ranks in Beijing and Shanghai. "But we are still here. And it's still business as usual."

One recent workday, yoga was held at 3 p.m., followed by jazz dance at 6 p.m. The menu for the day included braised Spanish mackerel with tomatoes, steamed sweet potatoes and fern root vermicelli with sour and spicy dressing. But the meals and amenities did not seem to distract from a serious technological mission — engineers worked on an array of products, from the company's local music search service to global maps and translation programs.

"We never left China," Boon-Lock Yeo, head of Google's engineering and research teams in China, said in reference to the widely held assumption in the United States that the company had raised the white flag. "At the end of the day, engineers are excited about what they do and to what extent they are working on cool technology. That is what got us through last year. There were periods of uncertainty."

The Beijing Google office reflects the work-play ethic of Google's vast Silicon Valley campus. While there are no volleyball pits or laundry service here as there are in California, there are plenty of couches, stuffed animals and food pantries overflowing with fruit, cookies and other snacks.

Cheng's job is to study the effectiveness of Google's automated translation service in 60 languages. Even though he works some 6,000 thousand miles from Silicon Valley, he and his China-based colleagues regularly interact with colleagues on the other side of the Pacific.

"You are not just in China working on China-specific products," Cheng said. "We are working on global products. Information flows freely."

Technology journalist Steven Levy, in his new book, "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives," writes that Google, known for its internal transparency, blocked engineers in China from certain information and projects for fear they would reveal sensitive material to government officials.

Yeo, though, said Google's China-based employees have not faced restrictions that are much different from those elsewhere in the company. "Engineers have roughly the same access anywhere" in the Google empire, he added.

Hanping Feng, who works on software that helps people use Latin-language keyboards to input non-Latin languages, said, "There are some constraints just like any other company. But with this company, we have much more freedom than most other companies, even global companies, here in China. We have more freedom to do the things we need to do."

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