BEIJING (AFP) - Hua Guofeng, who succeeded Mao Zedong as Chairman of China's ruling Communist Party and briefly ruled the country, died Wednesday at the age of 87, state media reported. State television CCTV and the official Xinhua news agency said Hua - one of the last of the revolutionary old guard - died in Beijing from an unspecified illness. Hua spent a brief period at the helm of the Communist Party after Mao's death in 1976, but was eased out of power a few years later by Deng Xiaoping, who introduced reforms that opened up China's economy. An official statement quoted by Xinhua praised Hua as "an outstanding CPC (Communist Party) member, a long-tested and loyal Communist fighter and a proletarian revolutionary who once held important leading posts in the CPC and the government." Delia Davin, professor emeritus of Chinese Studies at Leeds University, said he was someone "to whom history happened". "He wasn't adequately strong, he should never have become Mao's successor, and then he was deposed very gently. It was rather a sad life," she said. Born in north Shanxi province in 1921, Hua rose rapidly through the ranks under Mao's reign - which began in 1949 - from an obscure cadre in central Hunan province to premier in 1976 after the death of Mao's premier Zhou Enlai. Davin, who was in Beijing at that time, said the news came as a surprise to most people as Hua was still relatively unknown at the time. But he became party chief that same year after Mao's death, based on the Great Helmsman's simple remark, "With you in charge, I am at ease." At one time, Hua was head of the party, the government and the armed forces, having courted the faction led by Deng in order to eject the "Gang of Four" - including Mao's widely-reviled widow Jiang Qing - who were blamed for the excesses of the decade-long Cultural Revolution. As such, he is credited with ending that turbulent time of power struggles and political instability in China. But Deng then manoeuvred to oust Hua, who was determined to continue the Maoist line, and replaced him with younger men more attuned to his own ideas of economic reforms in top party and government posts. In 1980, he was replaced as premier by Zhao Ziyang, and by Hu Yaobang as party chairman in 1981 - two of Deng's proteges who were dedicated to economic reform. "If you compared him with Deng Xiaoping, he didn't have the gravitas, the seniority that Deng had," Davin said. At the 12th party congress in 1982, Hua's political fall culminated in him losing his politburo seat, but he remained as one of the members of the central committee. He lost his seat on the central committee in 2002, but was invited to the 17th Party Congress last year as a special delegate. But from the early 1980s, Hua stayed away from the public eye and it is not known what he thought of the changes that shook China in the decades that followed.