The Chinese Communist Party has made the right noises in unveiling a policy of building a harmonious society as its key goal for the next 15 years. The big question to ask is whether its rhetoric will be matched by concrete actions to make the world's most populous country a fair and just society. That is not to belittle the party leadership's efforts to try to address the issue of equity. A problem must first be identified before it can be solved. By making social harmony the theme of a party plenum - an unprecedented move - the leadership has demonstrated it is serious about achieving the objective. The plenum communique rightly listed the key challenges in achieving social harmony as improving the legal system, protecting human rights, narrowing the wealth gap, increasing employment, improving the government's public services, promoting people's moral standards, securing public order and protecting the environment. It also singled out rural development, employment, education, medical services, environmental protection, income distribution and social security systems as key sectors that should be given priority. But the dearth of information about what the party will do to turn these ideals into reality makes one wonder if it has found the right solutions to those challenges. For example, perfecting the legal system and protecting civil rights are goals that have long been championed by state leaders. However, ordinary people still face tremendous difficulties trying to assert their rights. Lawyers that try to help their clients exercise their lawful rights are often victimised. While the media could be used effectively as a way of releasing some of the steam and building a harmonious society, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction with tighter controls being imposed. Even though the central authorities appear to have every intention to build up the rule of law, little has been done to ensure local authorities abide by the law. In the absence of new initiatives, what hope is there that local officials will put the law first? Indeed, many social issues on the mainland stem from inherent contradictions between the priorities of central and local authorities. It is all very well for Beijing to decree that the country should embark on a path of sustainable development and put equal emphasis on economic growth and environmental conservation. But officials of cash-strapped counties and villages are often prepared to ignore environmental safeguards to spur growth, and do whatever it takes to cover up their irregularities. The centre-local issue is also one the party needs to resolve as it tries to build a social security system to cover the bulk of the population by 2020. Existing social security schemes are largely city-based and cover only about 10 per cent of the country's 1.3 billion population. Arguably, what is needed is a national scheme, which would have the added advantage of encouraging the free flow of people across the country - a most effective way of bridging the gaps between affluent and poor regions. A related issue is how the powers and responsibilities of the central and local governments should be demarcated. That includes the critical issue of how tax revenues should be split. The bulk of public revenues now go to the central government. Although transfers are then made to local governments for specific programmes, a mismatch of their priorities often gives rise to conflicts. The over-arching challenge the central leadership has to overcome in building a harmonious society is to properly motivate local authorities to do its bidding. That has to begin with a re-examination of the roles of central and local governments in the light of social and economic changes after 30 years of reform. The correct institutions have to be put in place to provide proper checks and balances of local powers. Freeing up the media so it can put errant officials on the spot would go a long way towards curbing the powers of officials and protecting civil rights.