TAIYUAN -- Fan Lifen clearly recalls the days when her hometown was shrouded in darkness, with the sun barely visible through a thick curtain of smog.
"The situation would worsen in the winter, when households would burn coal for heating," recalls Fan, a native of the city of Linfen in North China's Shanxi province.
Rapid industrialization and urbanization in the past two decades have saddled cities like Linfen with heavy environmental burdens, damaging the health of local residents and fueling complaints.
However, Linfen is making efforts to turn its situation around.
"The air in Linfen has improved tremendously," said Liu Dashan, spokesman for the Shanxi Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau.
The dramatic turnaround started when Linfen was listed as the "most polluted" among 113 major Chinese cities for three consecutive years from 2003 to 2005.
The local government has since launched a cleanup campaign, closing 1,056 factories and imposing stricter environmental standards on those that are still operating, according to Mayor Yue Puyu.
Substandard mines have been shut down and smaller ones have been merged into competitive mining conglomerates, Yue said.
Residents have been weaned off of coal burning, with natural gas heating introduced to more than 85 percent of the city's households, said Yang Zhaofen, director of the city's environmental protection bureau.
The changes were made possible by changing the way the performance of local officials is evaluated, with promotions and other rewards linked to their efforts to improve the city's environment.
Officials have not only closed down heavily polluting factories, but also taken action to add "green" features to the city. A large park was opened on the banks of the Fenhe River last year, helping to absorb pollutants and purify the air.
Over the years, China's economic growth has been fueled by over exploitation of natural resources, resulting in environment degradation. A worsening environment has prompted the government to exert greater efforts on environmental protection, replacing the practice of achieving growth at all costs.
President Hu Jintao said in a speech delivered to the 18th Communist Party of China National Congress on Thursday that China should "give high priority to making ecological progress" and "work hard to build a beautiful country and achieve lasting and sustainable development".
Linfen is a part of Shanxi's efforts to repair its environment. The province, which provides over 70 percent of China's coal, is slowly turning toward sustainable development.
More than 3,000 mines have been shut down since reforms were initiated in 2008, according to Wang Hongying, chief of the institute of macroeconomics under the provincial development and reform commission.
In addition to consolidating coal mines, the province has also made changes to the coal tax and fostered substitute industries, Wang said.
"We have set an example for other provinces. Although difficulties may emerge in the future, reforms will continue and we have high hopes for them," Wang said.