Former Fujian party chief dies, aged 61
Josephine Ma in Beijing
Former Fujian party boss Song Defu, once a frontrunner to succeed President Hu Jintao , died in Beijing on Thursday.
Mr Song, a close adviser to Mr Hu, died at 4.56am after an illness, according to China News Service. He was 61.
While state media has not named the disease that claimed the life of Mr Hu's carefully groomed protege, it was reported earlier that Mr Song had suffered from lung cancer.
Mr Hu's plan to promote his proteges was dealt a heavy blow in 2002, just before the 16th party congress, when two of his strongest candidates, ex-minister of commerce Lu Fuyuan and Mr Song, were forced to resign because they were battling cancer.
A Hebei native, Mr Song spent 18 years in the army and held leading positions in the political department of the People's Liberation Army Air Force and in the PLA.
He was appointed secretary of the secretariat of the central committee of the Communist Youth League (CYL) in 1983 and at that time became a colleague of Mr Hu.
A year earlier, he became the youngest alternate member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party at age 36.
In 1985, when Mr Hu left the CYL, Mr Song, at 39, was backed by Mr Hu to become his successor as the first secretary of the CYL and became the youngest ministerial-level official.
Mr Song also served as the first president of the China Youth Political College and vice-director of the PLA's organisation department. In 1993, he was appointed personnel minister.
When Mr Song was named Fujian party boss at the end of 2000, he was seen as the strongest candidate to become Mr Hu's successor.
Mr Song was sent to Fujian to restore order after the devastation of the Yuan Hua smuggling scandal.
He stepped down from the post in December 2004 after he was diagnosed with cancer.