Social injustices and inequalities reached the point where they could no longer be ignored by the country's leaders China-watchers will best remember 2003 for the rising power of the voice of the people. For the first time in the history of the People's Republic, the popular will made its most conspicuous impact on the policy agenda and prompted changes that will have far-reaching implications for years to come. The death in custody of Hubei graphic designer Sun Zhigang in March prompted such a national outcry that the central government dropped a 21-year-old decree on forcefully collecting and relocating beggars and vagrants in cities, replacing it with a comprehensive relief programme. In April, retired PLA doctor Jiang Yanyong accused officials of orchestrating a massive cover-up of the Sars outbreak, which had raged on the mainland since November 2002. This led to the Beijing mayor and the health minister's sackings and brought positive changes in how the government communicates with its citizens. For the first time, people's lives became the top priority, instead of the power and prestige of the Communist Party. In October, Hubei businessman Sun Dawu was released on bail after the public accused local authorities of trumping up charges against him for voicing farmers' concerns. In December, the Supreme People's Court took the unprecedented step of re-trying Liaoning province gangster Liu Yong after public outrage over a lower court's decision to give a suspended death sentence. Liu was executed after the retrial, but many legal experts expressed concerns about the verdict's legality and the way China's highest court handled the case. For better or worse, the power of the popular will had a significant impact on the national psyche. The momentum was assisted by the swearing-in of the new leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in March, which marked the first orderly transition of power in China's history. In a bid to lay the foundations for their own legacies, Mr Hu and Mr Wen adopted the popular western slogan of 'putting people first'. Both men, who lack their predecessors' revolutionary credentials, have stressed their descent from ordinary stock. Mr Wen was seen on television last Lunar New Year's Eve eating dumplings with coal miners in a pit 720 metres underground in Fuxin, Liaoning province. And on World Aids Day on December 1, Mr Wen became the first mainland leader to shake hands with Aids patients. A multitude of change in government practices have resulted from the leaders identifying with the underprivileged. Extensive protests and popular discontent have also forced improvement in transparency and reform of rules to stop residents being evicted from their homes on land earmarked for development. Deeper reasons behind the changes are the social injustices and inequalities that have reached the point where they can no longer be ignored. The widening income gap has threatened social order and polarised society. China's gross domestic product for last year is expected to top 11 trillion yuan, a year-on-year 8.5 per cent rise. This means that per capita GDP would cross the important threshold of US$1,000 for the first time. But the country's farmers only earn an average $300 a year and the gap is expected to widen. New leaders have also begun to address serious national imbalances. Mr Hu and Mr Wen ditched late leader Deng Xiaoping's favourite slogan, 'Let some people get rich first'. Although Deng's policy played a significant role in pushing through economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, it also contributed to the gap between urban and rural centres, and the economic disparities between the east, west and northeast. Secondly, the administration has started to shift away from former premier Zhu Rongji's pursuit of economic growth and emphasis on revitalising the state sector. Officials now say the pursuit of economic growth is no longer the most important task. While the leaders promised further political reforms no obvious progress has been made. In fact, the central government has apparently stepped up its crackdown on unsanctioned religious activities and political dissent on the internet.