When President Hu Jintao came to power in late 2002 and Premier Wen Jiabao in early 2003, trumpeting their policy of putting the people first, expectations ran so high that the state media and some overseas media in Hong Kong affectionately hailed the era as Hu-Wen's New Deal. Four years later, however, the Hu-Wen ticket is faced with unprecedented challenges, which will have serious implications for intense power-jockeying in the run-up to the Communist Party's 17th congress in autumn, when leadership reshuffles will be discussed and approved. Still ringing in the ears of many mainlanders was a solemn pledge Mr Wen made in his government work report in March 2005: 'Our striving goal is to let people drink clean water, breathe fresh air and have a better environment in which to live and work.' The pledge has since been met with a multitude of disasters, from the poisoning of the Songhua River in the very year the pledge was made, which cut off the water supply to 4 million residents of Harbin, to the recent outbreaks of algal blooms on the three major lakes and reports of the mainland's environmental degradation. Other examples abound. There is a crisis of confidence in the safety of mainland foods and drugs following a spate of reports that fake drugs killed mainland patients and tainted foods led to pet deaths in the US. The embarrassed mainland leadership ordered the execution of the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration Zheng Xiaoyu, who was accused of accepting almost 6.5 million yuan in bribes for doling out favours to some pharmaceutical companies. Thousands of labourers, including many children as young as 14, were abducted and forced to work in brick kilns in slave-like conditions. Since late 2003, the mainland leadership has begun meting out macro-economic measures to cool down the overheating property market and other aspects of the economy, but to little avail. To millions of mainlanders, soaring costs in property, medical care and education have weighed like 'the three big mountains' on people's backs. Many analysts have proffered various reasons: rampant official corruption, widespread collusion between corrupt officials and greedy businessmen, officials' blind pursuit of economic growth above everything else and the flawed regulatory regime. But there is one more important reason that is seldom discussed: the weak and incapable leadership of the central government, compared with the free-wheeling cadres at the level of local authorities, from villages to counties to cities to provinces. Contrary to the popular misconception that Beijing calls the shots on everything, the mainland leadership's orders are often ignored or distorted as soon as they are issued. Back in 2005, Zhang Baoqing , a retiring deputy minister of education, caused a big stir by discussing publicly an open secret long known to the bureaucrats: that the mainland's biggest problem was that decrees from Zhongnanhai (the mainland leadership's headquarters in Beijing) could not be heard outside its walls. Indeed, the central government often looks hapless, be it its plans to cool down the property market or reduce pollution. The mainland has long maintained environmental protection is a long-term national policy, but Mr Wen's plan to reduce emissions failed last year and does not look optimistic this year. To make matters worse, the mainland leaders' hands are tied following nearly 30 years of economic reforms and decentralisation. Beijing may set the policies, but the local authorities have the control over financial, human and material resources. There have been signs that the central government is trying to centralise its power again, including the plans to centralise the management of the pension funds following the 3.7 billion yuan fund scandal in Shanghai. Mr Hu is also using the anti-corruption campaign to consolidate his power by replacing those officials who are seen as less loyal to him or the central government with his own supporters. This has led to sackings of a number of officials in Beijing, Tianjin , Shandong and Shanghai. But a change of one or two provincial leaders does not matter much. Jiangsu province is one of the worst offenders in terms of environmental degradation, although its party chief is Mr Hu's ally. To be fair, the local officials have a long and time-honoured tradition of fobbing off their superiors, stretching back hundreds of years and giving rise to the proverb, 'The sky is high, and the emperor is far away'. But history has also shown that the nation was often at its best when the leaders of the central government had stiffer spines and a stronger willingness to take on the vested interests of local officials. For one thing, the central government should muster the political will and courage to overcome local resistance and undertake drastic and necessary taxation and fiscal reforms to ensure that local officials focus upon providing public services instead of pursuing the growth of the gross domestic product.