BEIJING, Feb 22 (Reuters) Chinese Vice-Premier Huang Ju, ranked sixth in the Communist Party hierarchy, has been diagnosed with cancer, two Chinese sources with close ties to the leadership and a Hong Kong newspaper said today.
The South China Morning Post said Huang, an ally of former party boss Jiang Zemin, was ''expected soon to quit politics'' because the disease, though very common, was difficult to treat.
The sources told Reuters that how party chief and President Hu Jintao handles Huang's illness could be a barometer of whether he has the political clout to sideline the protege of still influential Jiang Zemin.
''It'll be a test of whether Hu has fully consolidated power and able to remove Huang Ju,'' one of the sources said on condition of anonymity.
The cabinet spokesman's office had no immediate comment to make on Huang who is responsible for economic and financial policies.
Huang was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during a routine medical check-up before the Lunar New Year holidays and has been in hospital since, the Post said without saying where. He is believed to be in a Shanghai hospital.
Huang, 67, one of the closest allies of Jiang in the party's nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, has disappeared from the public eye since January 16 when he attended a meeting of the China Banking Regulatory Commission in Beijing, the sources said.
Huang has been absent from meetings of the cabinet and the party's 24-member elite Politburo since as well as celebrations marking the Lunar New Year last month, the sources said.
CONDITION SERIOUS The Post said Huang's admission to hospital was unlikely to have any immediate impact on the direction and thrust of China's economic development because major decisions by the Politburo Standing Committee are reached through consensus.
Although not immediately life threatening, his medical condition is believed to be serious, making it almost impossible for him to resume his hectic work schedule in the near future, the newspaper said.
It was unclear if Huang will be replaced. His portfolio is expected to be shared among the other three vice-premiers, the Post said.
Jiang could lose a powerful voice in the intense jockeying ahead of the party's 17th congress next year, at which the next generation of China's leadership is expected to emerge.
Hu, still consolidating power after taking over the top job in the party from Jiang in 2002, is expected to reshuffle the leadership at the congress due in the fourth quarter of 2007.
Hu replaced Jiang as state president in 2003 and military chief in 2004.
Both Hu and Huang are engineers by training and graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University. But Huang was regarded as part of Jiang's powerful ''Shanghai Gang'', a string of top leaders who emerged from China's financial capital during the former party boss's 13-year tenure.
Huang became mayor of Shanghai in 1991 and Communist Party boss in 1994. He was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2002.
REUTERS PDS RAI0752