After months of preparation, Google Inc. formally opened its Beijing research and development (R&D) center this week, the company said Thursday.

Google hopes the R&D center will house up to 150 engineers by the middle of this year, said Debbie Frost, a company spokeswoman. “We will hire as many people as meet our high standards,” she said.

The Beijing R&D lab is headed by Kai-Fu Lee, a former Microsoft Corp. executive who now serves as co-president of Google China. For months, Lee has been touring China, speaking at universities and meeting engineers as part of an effort to recruit staff for the center.

Expectations are high for Lee and the Beijing lab. While Google has yet to determine what areas the center will focus on, CEO Eric Schmidt has said publicly that he expects the lab to one day house “thousands” of engineers and perhaps become the company’s largest R&D center outside the U.S.

Along with the announcement of the lab opening, Google unveiled its Chinese name, Gu Ge, which combines the characters for “valley” and “song.”

Google has moved quickly to build up its presence in China, which has more than 110 million Internet users. In addition to the R&D lab, the company has established a Chinese sales network for its AdSense advertising service and launched, a local version of its search engine that was criticized by some observers for omitting politically sensitive results.