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A man rows a boat on a river in front of new properties in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, July 24, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's crackdown on graft has created an atmosphere in which people are increasingly too afraid to be corrupt, the top official in one of the country's most graft-plagued provinces said on Tuesday.

Parts of the coal-rich northern province of Shanxi used to be "disaster areas" because of the systemic corruption that nearly triggered collapse, provincial Communist Party boss Wang Rulin said in an interview published by China's main anti-graft agency.

But things were getting better, Wang said.

"At present, the atmosphere for not daring to be corrupt is getting strong by the day, the effect is more obvious," Wang said the interview posted on the website of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Vice Premier Ma Kai last year described the corruption problem in Shanxi as "like a cancer".

Wang said the province had faced a "systemic collapse-style corruption situation" with two parts of it "disaster areas".

Shanxi, as one of China's top coal producing provinces, has seen its economy boom on the back of soaring energy demand over the past decade, one of the reasons state media has given for its corruption problem.

The most senior Shanxi-connected official to fall to date has been Ling Jihua, once a top aide to former president Hu Jintao. The state prosecutor last month charged Ling with taking bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets and abuse of power.

Wang said five party bosses of Shanxi cities were investigated over the past year, when in the previous 14 years none had been.

At one point last year, action against corrupt officials in the province left the government with some 300 jobs to fill.

Wang said there had also been a big improvement in the work ethic of Shanxi officials who were once too tolerant of bad behaviour.

"The new leadership of the provincial party committee lead from the front and take responsibility," he said.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to take down high-flying "tigers" as well as lowly "flies" in his war against pervasive graft.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Robert Birsel)

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