BEIJING -- In an apparent bid to head off more foreign criticism on human rights abuses this week, China acknowledged yesterday that two prominent, imprisoned dissidents began hunger strikes almost three weeks ago and are ill.
In an unusual report, the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, said jailed Tiananmen Square activists Wang Juntao, 33, and Chen Ziming, 39, temporarily stopped eating to protest prison officials' barring their wives from seeing them last month.
But Xinhua said their hunger strikes were brief. Mr. Chen has been eating normally for the past 12 days and Mr. Wang is eating "irregularly," the news agency said.
The report also confirmed relatives' claims that Mr. Wang is showing signs of hepatitis, and it said that he has been sent to a hospital for treatment. Mr. Chen is being treated for a skin ailment, the report said.
The two men received 13-year prison terms after closed-door trials in February on charges of masterminding the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
The Xinhua report -- on a matter that China normally maintains is an internal affair -- follows a recent expression of concern by the U.S. State Department about the men's health and prison conditions.
It comes on the eve of short visits beginning here today by British Prime Minister John Major and two U.S. congressional critics of China, Representative Stephen J. Solarz, D-N.Y., and Representative Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Mr. Major will be the first head of a Western nation to visit China since the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests more than two years ago.
China, eager to end its diplomatic isolation and the vestiges of the sanctions imposed by Western nations, probably will make much of Mr. Major's visit -- as it did last month when Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu came here.
The main focus of the British leader's visit will be the formal signing of an agreement on a new $16.2 billion airport in Hong Kong.
But human rights abuses in China are also expected to be raised by Mr. Major in meetings with Chinese leaders, and they will certainly be brought up by the two visiting U.S. representatives.
Ms. Pelosi, in particular, is describing her visit as a "human rights delegation," and some members of her group have said that they will attempt to visit jailed dissidents.
The overall thrust of yesterday's Chinese report on the two dissidents -- that both are essentially healthy and kept in clean, dry cells -- contradicts assertions by relatives, who have repeatedly attempted to draw international attention to the men's ailments and unhealthy prison conditions.
The Xinhua report could not be confirmed. The two dissidents' relatives last saw them Aug. 13 and Aug. 14, the days their wives were prevented from visiting them and the days on which they stopped eating, sources close to their families said yesterday.