China Attributes Vice Premier's Absence to Unidentified Illness

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 3, 2006

BEIJING, March 2 -- The Chinese government said Thursday that Vice Premier Huang Ju, one of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the nation's secretive ruling council, had been hospitalized and was recovering. It did not specify the illness.

The statement by a government spokesman at a news conference was the first official comment on Huang's unexplained absence since mid-January from all public events, including those attended by the other eight members of the committee.

Huang, 67, an influential former mayor of Shanghai who ranks sixth in the Communist Party hierarchy, is considered a close associate of former president Jiang Zemin. His disappearance has prompted discussion in party circles about whether allies of Jiang are being pushed aside by a rival faction led by his successor, Hu Jintao.

"Not long ago, Comrade Huang Ju was hospitalized for treatment because he was unwell," said Wu Jianmin, spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a national advisory body that opens its annual session Friday. "He is currently recovering."

Speaking in response to a reporter's question, Wu did not elaborate or say whether the Chinese leader would step down from any of his posts.

Huang, whose portfolio includes management of the nation's finance and banking sector, was last reported seen in public on Jan. 16, when the official New China News Agency said he attended a banking supervision meeting in Beijing.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported in late February that Huang had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was "expected soon to quit politics." The Reuters news agency also reported that Huang was suffering from pancreatic cancer. Both cited unnamed sources.

In addition, some well placed party members have suggested that Huang is in political jeopardy and might be under investigation for corruption.

In China's opaque one-party political system, deceptive leaks to the Hong Kong and foreign media are often used as weapons in political infighting.

More than three years after taking over as party chief, Hu is still consolidating his power, while supporters of Jiang continue to hold several seats on the Politburo Standing Committee as well as other key party, military and government posts. Huang's departure, for whatever reason, could alter the balance of factions within the leadership, giving Hu an opportunity to replace him with an ally of his own.

One political analyst with ties to the leadership said the Hu and Jiang factions were jockeying for advantage ahead of a key party congress next year, when several Politburo members are scheduled to retire. Hu is attempting to position his supporters for promotion, the analyst said, but it is unclear whether he will succeed because Jiang continues to wield influence even though he is retired.

"Both sides are being careful," said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "No one wants to risk making a mistake before the congress."

The spokesman's statement that Huang was recovering is the latest in a series of signals that at least some people in the leadership want to quash speculation that the vice premier might be on his way out.

On Wednesday, the New China News Agency took the unusual step of distributing an excerpt of a speech delivered by Huang in early January. And a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, Wen Wei Po, reported Thursday that he had undergone surgery but was not seriously ill.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company