Today is a good time to make New Year's resolutions. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao must each have a long list, given the country's multitude of political, economic and social challenges. I hope some issues that concern me also make their way to the leaders' top-10 lists, not least because one of them involves their own health. On top of my wish list is better air in Beijing. Like most mainland cities, air quality in the capital is getting worse - contrary to official statements. On Christmas Eve, Xinhua announced in a gushing report that Beijing had met its annual target of 'blue sky' days ahead of schedule, with 238 days of good air quality. I find it difficult to feel jubilant about that report, which meant that on the other 127 days, myself and the more than 16 million people living in Beijing breathed filthy air, mixed with vehicle exhaust fumes and industrial pollutants. As any Beijing resident will testify, it is usually difficult to breathe easily even on one of those so-called blue-sky days when the sunlight is filtered through airborne dirt, sand and smog. On those rare crystal-clear days for which officials cannot wait to claim credit, I tend to find that God plays a bigger role than anti-pollution efforts because they usually occur at the same time as a strong wind. Since I moved back to Beijing little more than a year ago, I have taken some perverse satisfaction in the knowledge that regardless of how many privileges Mr Hu and Mr Wen enjoy as leaders - homes in the exclusive and wooded Zhongnanhai compound and first-class medical attention, among others - every day they breathe the same filthy air as I do. But that also leaves me dismayed and confused as to why they have not taken more drastic measures to curb air pollution, particularly as their own health is at stake. To be fair, the leaders cannot be accused of not expressing concern about the environment. In March 2005, Premier Wen made a solemn pledge in his Government Work Report at the opening session of the National People's Congress: 'Our striving goal is to let people drink clean water, breathe fresh air and have a better environment in which to live and work.' Nearly 3,000 NPC deputies responded with warm applause, as this appeared to be the first time the central government had made this a policy objective. But hope soon evaporated, with his pledge being met with a series of disastrous pollution incidents, including the poisoning of the Songhua River, which cut off water supplies to the 4 million residents of Harbin and other smaller cities for a week. Understandably, a similar pledge was nowhere to be found in Mr Wen's report in March last year. Mr Wen and other senior officials have since admitted that the government was unable to fulfil its environmental targets for the year just gone, including the reduction of pollution emissions. Those are probably the only targets the government failed to meet, while all major economic goals including GDP growth, state investment and bank lending, overshot the targets. Wu Xiaoqing , deputy minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said on Friday it was unrealistic to meet the target of reducing chemical oxygen demand - which measures water pollution - set in the 11th Five-Year Programme (2006-2010). In the programme, the government promised to cut energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 per cent by 2010 and slash emissions of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide emissions by 10 per cent. It is astonishing that last year was the first year of the programme and a senior Sepa official has already thrown in the towel. For the sake of their own health and hundreds of millions of other mainlanders, Mr Hu and Mr Wen should make the environment the top priority this year. As Sepa officials have long argued, the central government has not spent enough on environment protection and Sepa has neither adequate laws nor manpower to fight pollution. Given the country's foreign exchange reserves of US$1 trillion and the bulging state coffers, leaders should not hesitate to allocate more money for environmental protection and give more power and resources to Sepa to do its job properly. More importantly, they should make environmental protection one of the key benchmarks when assessing the performance of local officials, and make them accountable to fulfil the targets in the five-year plan. Meanwhile, another of my wishes for the new year is much simpler and closer to home. The leadership should release Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong journalist working for Singapore's The Straits Times, on medical parole, as soon as possible. As this year marks the 10th anniversary of the handover, the central government is likely to present a number of gifts to the Hong Kong people, including a pair of pandas, which have already been announced. Hints about the other likely gifts can be gained from Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's series of meetings in Beijing recently with top ministers from the central bank to the State Development and Reform Commission. But the best present to mark the occasion and make Hong Kong people happier would be to release Ching.