BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police joined throngs of tourists in a crowded Tiananmen Square on Sunday, heading off any incidents to mark the anniversary of the bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations 17 years ago.
With checkpoints at entrances to the square and sentries at subway stops, the security presence in and around China's symbolic political heart appeared no more overt than usual.
But in line with the unspoken policy of "wai song, nei jin" -- relaxed on the outside, vigilant internally -- plainclothes policemen mingled with sightseers following their flag-waving guides, ready to pounce should one attempt to mark the day by unfurling a protest banner, kneeling to pray or laying wreaths.
The security ritual has occurred annually since June 4, 1989. That was when troops backed by tanks shot their way from the city outskirts to the edge of the square to end rallies for democracy that students had led there since mid-April when they had gathered to mourn the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang.
By contrast, in Hong Kong tens of thousands of people turned out for a competing ritual -- a mass candlelight vigil to remember the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who were killed.
In the square on Sunday, students appeared more interested in the sights -- Mao Zedong's mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People and the history museum flank the immense open space -- than in politics.
Anniversaries or the deaths of popular leaders in China have often provided excuses for protest.
There was no special police presence on Fuqiang Hutong, where Zhao Ziyang -- the party secretary toppled in 1989 for sympathising with the student protesters -- lived under house arrest for 15 years until his death in January 2005.
People walking into the alley towards the red door of his home got little more than a hard stare from men in plainclothes. Still, dissidents were rounded up ahead of the anniversary.
Seventeen years ago, students huddled around the Monument to People's Heroes in the middle of Tiananmen Square, waiting for the military assault. It is cordoned off today.
After China declared martial law in May 1989, students knelt to block subway entrances, many feared that's where the soldiers might emerge, and said: "Dare to die squad, I fear not death."
Today, tourists emerge to file past uniformed sentries onto the square.
Ahead of the anniversary, the "Tiananmen Mothers", relatives of victims of the crackdown, called on the government to reassess the demonstrations, which it has branded subversive.
In April authorities made a payment to the mother of one of those killed, the first case of compensation. But Ding Zilin, a retired professor whose son died in the crackdown, has said she doubted it meant any softening of the official line.
While no major protests were reported in China proper, in Hong Kong organisers of the evening vigil said 44,000 people showed up to sing and wave candles in memory of the victims of the crackdown. Police said about 19,000 appeared.
"Reverse the verdict on June 4th. The people will not forget. Long live democracy," chanted the crowd. In the wake of the crackdown, the government proclaimed the protests a "counter-revolutionary rebellion". There has not been a public accounting for those killed.
Hong Kong was a British colony at the time of Tiananmen massacre, returning to Chinese rule in 1997 with special status allowing it to retain much of its political and social life.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and John Ruwitch in Hong Kong)