The central government took the unusual step last night of denying media reports that the mainland's sixth-ranked leader, Vice-Premier Huang Ju , had died.
'It is our understanding that news regarding Vice-Premier Huang Ju's death is totally wrong,' an official of the cabinet spokesman's office said.
The Foreign Ministry also said it had no information on the matter. 'We have not learned anything about this from our superior departments,' a spokesman from the ministry's news department said.
Earlier, Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television and London-based newspaper The Times reported Mr Huang, 69, had died after a battle with cancer, citing unidentified sources.
The reports said Mr Huang, who had been ill with pancreatic cancer since last year, died yesterday morning at a military hospital in western Beijing.
The Times report appeared on its website while Phoenix reported the news in an on-screen ticker and said it had no further updates.
At the end of last month, Mr Huang left Shanghai for Beijing to be admitted to the 301 People's Liberation Army Hospital, where most Chinese leaders undergo treatment. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping died there in February 1997.
Reports on Tuesday said Mr Huang's condition had worsened recently.
His failure to appear at the funeral in January of Bo Yibo , the last surviving party elder, was the clearest sign that Mr Huang was no longer able to carry out his official functions.
Reports also indicated that due to the slim possibility of his recovery, the party's decision-making bodies had decided that Vice-Premier Wu Yi would act as executive vice-premier and preside over the work of the State Council when Premier Wen Jiabao was away from Beijing.
The news comes months before the 17th Party Congress, a five-yearly meeting that will see a major reshuffle of the top leadership. Analysts said Mr Huang's condition would open the way for President Hu Jintao to appoint an ally to fill his seat on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
Mr Huang, a Zhejiang native, has been seen as a protege and close ally of former president and party chief Jiang Zemin , and a key member Mr Jiang's 'Shanghai gang'.
Mr Hu has been gradually consolidating his own power base since he succeeded Mr Jiang in 2002 by installing allies to replace Mr Jiang's men.
Whether Mr Huang is replaced before the party congress could be a barometer of Mr Hu's consolidation of power.
The ailing Mr Huang's most recent public appearances were at the annual session of the National People's Congress in March.