BEIJING -- A leading imprisoned Chinese dissident, Chen Ziming, began a hunger strike yesterday to protest the squalid conditions of his solitary confinement cell, friends of his family said last night.
It was not clear whether Wang Juntao was carrying out a threat to start his own hunger strike for the same reason, according to friends of both men's families.
The two dissidents have been labeled by the government as the masterminds behind the June 1989 pro-democracy protests.
The uncertainty over Mr. Wang's situation arose in part because both his wife and Mr. Chen's were barred by prison authorities this week from monthly visits, the friends said.
Prison officials told the wives that their visits would not be allowed because of efforts by their families to attract international attention to the dissidents' plight by talking with the foreign press, the friends said.
A visiting U.S. congressman, Representative Arthur Ravenel Jr., R-S.C., said yesterday that he, too, was denied permission this week to visit Mr. Wang. Mr. Ravenel appealed for Mr. Wang's release to a hospital for treatment of suspected hepatitis -- a claimed illness that Chinese authorities now dispute.
Mr. Wang's mother and Mr. Chen's sister were allowed brief visits with their imprisoned relatives this week. But Mr. Chen's sister hadto sign a pledge not to talk to foreign reporters and was not allowed to talk with Mr. Chen about Mr. Wang's situation, friends said.
The visit by Mr. Wang's mother did not clear up whether he has begun his threatened hunger strike, friends said.
Mr. Wang, 33, and Mr. Chen, 38, are being kept in solitary confinement at the Beijing No. 2 Prison in insect-ridden, damp cells that reek of sewage, friends of their families said.
Both received 13-year jail terms after closed-door trials in February. These were the stiffest sentences handed down to alleged leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests.