Image: Hua Guofeng
-  /  AFP/Getty Images
Hua Guofeng, who was personally chosen by dying Chinese leader Mao Zedong as his replacement, is seen in this February 1978 file photo.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/20/2008 8:22:37 AM ET 2008-08-20T12:22:37

Hua Guofeng, who briefly ruled China as Mao Zedong's handpicked successor before being toppled by reformists, died Wednesday. He was 87.

The official Xinhua news agency said Hua died of illness but did not elaborate.

Hua, once fondly referred to by state media as the "Wise Leader", became Communist Party chairman in September 1976 after Mao was quoted as saying on his death bed: "With you in charge my heart is at ease".

But he saw his powers erode until he was pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping as a prelude to reforms that launched an economic boom.

Hua was forced out as Communist Party chairman in 1981 and slipped into obscurity.

Inner circle
In contrast to the harsh purges of earlier eras, when fallen leaders were banished to remote villages, Hua remained part of the inner circle as a member of the party's Central Committee.

Shortly after Hua took power, he approved a military plot to arrest Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, and other members of her reviled radical Gang of Four. They were blamed for Mao's excesses during the chaotic decade-long Cultural Revolution.

When he was forced out as party leader in 1981, one stated reason was that Hua had continued to espouse the ultra-radical ideals of the Cultural Revolution.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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