Vice Premier Huang Ju, a key ally of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin who climbed the ranks of Shanghai politics to join the Communist Party's inner sanctum of power, died early Saturday, the official Xinhua News Agency said. He was 68.
Xinhua did not disclose the cause of death, though Huang had reportedly been ill with pancreatic cancer for much of the past two years.
Xinhua said the Chinese leadership in its official obituary of Huang called him "a long-tested and faithful communist fighter" — a traditional description for a leader who dies in good standing.
Huang ranked No. 6 in the party hierarchy. His death creates a vacancy in the Politburo and gives President Hu Jintao an opportunity to increase his hold on power by filling it with a supporter.
Because of his illness, Huang had been expected to retire later this year at an important party congress, a once-every-five-years event that normally occasions sharp infighting for senior posts. It's unclear whether Hu, unrivaled for power after five years as party head, will now move to fill Huang's Politburo seat ahead of the congress.
A technocrat and administrator, Huang was not associated with particular policies or reforms. Rather he was best known for his relationship to former President Jiang.
Both were Shanghai party leaders, Jiang in the 1980s, Huang in the 1990s. Huang worked for several years with Jiang, who was picked to lead the Communist Party in 1989, after the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
When Jiang stepped down as party leader in 2002 to make way for Hu, Huang was among a handful of allies Jiang maneuvered into the party's inner sanctum — the nine-seat Politburo Standing Committee — to safeguard his influence and legacy.
Born in September 1938 in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Huang joined the Communist Party when he was 24 years old.
After graduating with a degree in engineering from the prestigious Tsinghua University, he began working as a technician for the Shanghai Artificial Board-Making Machinery Plant and took on increasingly important positions at Shanghai-based state enterprises.
Became mayor of Shanghai in 1991
In 1991 he became Shanghai's mayor and three years later party chief, a post he held until 2002, when he was promoted to the Standing Committee.
Huang's main responsibilities were finance and banking, but many of those policies were being driven by Premier Wen Jiabao and others in the government.
Huang disappeared from public view in late 2005 and had been absent from many public, official functions since. Hong Kong media reported early last year that Huang had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The secretive party, which rarely discloses personal information about its leaders, refused to confirm the reports.
Huang, who was reportedly soft-spoken and camera-shy, made one of his last major international appearances at the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
He said then that China's per capita income would triple during the next 15 years and sought to reassure the world that there was no reason to fear his country's emergence as a global giant.
"China will by no means pose a threat to others," Huang told more than 2,000 of the world's rich and powerful. "The Earth is a common home to all of us," he said.