The balance of power to shift with Huang's fate
Ailing Politburo Standing Committee member Huang Ju, arguably one of the mainland's most mysterious politicians, is likely to trigger an overdue shift in the balance of power before passing quietly into history.
Speculation about the 69-year-old core member of the 'Shanghai gang' has been gathering pace since September, when former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu was sacked because of his involvement in a massive pension funds scandal.
Mr Huang, who spent almost all of his political career in Shanghai before being promoted to Beijing in 2002, was said to have been embroiled in the Chen case and was singled out as a likely next victim in President Hu Jintao's anti-corruption drive.
His declining health, which has confined him to hospital and kept him out of public sight for most of the past 12 months, certainly helped stoke the rumour mill inside and outside Beijing. That continued yesterday with the central government denying reports of his death.
His failure to appear at the funeral in January of veteran revolutionary Bo Yibo further heightened speculation that Mr Huang was critically ill and no longer able to carry out his official functions.
Another report, hinting at the unlikelihood of Mr Huang's recovery, said the party leadership had decided that Vice-Premier Wu Yi should now act as executive vice-premier, a post previously held by Mr Huang. This meant Ms Wu would preside over the State Council when Premier Wen Jiabao was away on foreign visits.
Mr Wen has reportedly taken over Mr Huang's portfolio in the Politburo Standing Committee responsible for the financial sector.
The Communist Party had been silent about Mr Huang's illness until the National People's Congress in March, when a frail and haggard Mr Huang managed to make only the opening ceremony and the Shanghai delegates' session.
Nevertheless, the official media continue to publish his speeches and instructions regularly, in an attempt to dispel rumours that his removal from office was imminent.
Analysts say the departure of Mr Huang from the top leadership, despite its limited political impact due to his dwindling political influence, will nevertheless be a significant political boost for Mr Hu, who is keen to appoint a close ally to fill Mr Huang's seat on the Politburo Standing Committee at this autumn's party congress.
'It's going to reduce a certain amount of messy political bargaining at the top level,' said Beijing-based political scientist Hu Xingdou . 'It would spare President Hu Jintao a bit of political risk.'
Mr Huang's departure also would help head off any direct conflict between Mr Hu's camp and former party chief Jiang Zemin's 'Shanghai Gang', Professor Hu said, because it would remove one 'Shanghai Gang' vote from the decision-making process.
As one of the most partisan of politicians, Mr Huang is set to go down in history as a controversial figure and one affected by the rise and fall of the 'Shanghai Gang', City University of Hong Kong political science professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek said.
'He was one of those provincial leaders who was engaging in reform experiments and made his contribution to Shanghai's economic take-off,' said Professor Cheng. 'But his legacy is going to be tainted by his association with corruption scandals.'