Top state leaders met mostly as a formality yesterday in Beijing to mark the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement - a deviation from the usual hubbub surrounding the event, which has special significance for the Communist Party. All nine Politburo members, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , attended a two-hour gathering at the Great Hall of the People, accentuated by lectures given by model youth workers, scientists and students. But Li Changchun, the party's ideology affairs chief, was the only party heavyweight to give a speech. Campuses across Beijing were quiet - even Peking University, where student protesters set out on a historic parade on May 4, 1919. They cried foul on the peace treaty ending the first world war, which denied China's claim on German concessions and, instead, awarded them to Japan. The protest eventually turned violent and marked a surge in nationalism. Observers said the authorities were playing it safe this year for good reason, as the Youth Festival - a title given to May 4 after the Communists took power in 1949 - aroused memories of the Chinese elite's painful and, so far, fruitless quest for democracy. Party bigwigs usually visit a university in the capital on May 4. In a normal year that would be Peking University. That did not happen this year. 'I'm only aware of a celebration in the form of a small-group discussion by the Chinese literature department and no more fanfare on campus over the past week,' said a Peking University postgraduate student. 'I remember in recent years a visit by the leaders was a fixture in the May 4 week.' Mr Wen, known for his populist style, mingled with students at the China University of Political Science and Law on last year's Youth Festival. This time around, his secretaries quietly moved a similar visit to Sunday in the form of a low-profile discussion session with 100 graduates in Tsinghua University's library. 'They are handling the anniversaries subtly because, unlike the 60th anniversary of the inauguration of the Republic, it is not a 100 per cent straightforward Communist festival,' said Poon Siu-to, a Hong Kong-based political commentator. 'The universal definition of the May Fourth Movement goes beyond the Communist rhetoric with a strong emphasis on democracy. With that in mind, the authorities would not dare to put one foot wrong.' Student protests have played a big role in democracy movements in China, the most recent being the 1989 uprising, on which the government cracked down. The 20th anniversary of that crackdown in June, some analysts say, is another reason authorities may have played down the Youth Festival this year. But Yu Hai , a professor of sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the May Fourth Movement and the spirit it embodied had long been lost in today's China. 'The authorities have just moulded the historic event into a form of patriotic semantics and ... stuffed it with the message they would like to sound to the public,' he said. 'It becomes less effective as time goes by.'