ZHUZHOU - Zhuzhou in central China's Hunan, province, one of the nation's ten most polluted cities a decade ago, has been transformed.
One of the first cities to embrace heavy industry after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Zhuzhou was home to cement and chemical plants along with other heavy polluting, high energy consumption works.
Liu Yi, 45, has worked in the glass industry for 28 years. The factory where she works was built on a low added-value basis, and in 2004 Liu was only making about 220 yuan ($26) per month.
"The sky was often obscured by black smoke pouring from hundreds of old chimneys," she said.
"Policymakers once idolized tall chimneys: The more chimneys, the better. This mindset has now changed," Mao Tengfei, mayor of Zhuzhou, said recently.
China's economic growth over the past three decades relied on investment and exports, without much thought given to the environment. Zhuzhou's economic reinvention is just one example of the transition many cities are undergoing today.
"Our mindset has shifted from chimney worship to chimney phobia," said Mao.
Since 2011, Zhuzhou has eliminated 213 polluting factories and closed production lines in cement, steel and chemicals. More than 450 chimneys have been torn down.
"This has led to enormous pressure to create jobs but also to more livable communities and a strong will for industrial upgrades, the foundation of urban transition. These things cannot be achieved without pain," said He Anjie, secretary of the municipal committee of the Communist Party of China.
High-end manufacturing, new materials, services and pharmaceutical industries are the new pillars of the local economy, and companies like Microsoft and Alibaba have established regional offices, innovation centers or joint ventures there.
Exhausted by the pace of economic expansion over the past three decades, many Chinese cities must now embark on an rapid industrial detox and intense workouts to get themselves fit and ready to compete again on new terms.
Targets set at the start of 2014 for eliminating overcapacity were broadly met and in some cases exceeded. Iron and steel capacity was cut by over 30 million tons, 4 million tons more than target. Cement capacity fell by 81 million tons, almost twice the target amount.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) earlier this month lowered its forecast of Chins's growth to 6.8 percent for 2015, below the psychologically important 7 percent level. The forecast "reflects a welcome decision to reorient the economy towards consumption and away from the real estate sector and shadow banking," said IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard.
Zhuzhou is home to some high-tech and equipment businesses like CSR Corporation Limited who makes bullet trains and light sport aircraft producer Sunward Tech. In the nine months ending September 2014, annualized rates of growth in high-tech and equipment manufacturing industries nationwide were both well over 10 percent, much higher than the industrial average.
Liu's factory was acquired by Kibing Glass Group in 2005 to produce glass with higher value-added and the factory now belches out a lot less pollution. The city's economy has a new swagger, and Liu, now head of the technology department, takes home 6,000 yuan each month; in real terms almost 30 times what she earned ten years ago.
The people of Zhuzhou saw their average income rise by 9.6 percent in 2014, but for residents like Liu, the most important thing is that Zhuzhou has become a more pleasant place to live for her family.
"I hope my living standards can rise, but I will be sad if the blue sky disappears again," she said.