The wives of two imprisoned Chinese labor organizers called Tuesday for two visiting U.S. Cabinet members to press the Chinese government to release their husbands so they can receive urgently needed medical care.

The emotional appeal, made in an interview they requested with The Washington Post, came on the second day of a visit to Beijing by Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and Elaine L. Chao, the first labor secretary to visit China in 16 years.

The Bush administration has used the trip to demonstrate a tough line with China on what it contends are unfair trade practices and violations of international labor standards. Earlier this year, administration officials rejected separate requests by U.S. labor unions and manufacturers to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, arguing that diplomatic engagement with China was the best way to open the country's markets to U.S. products.

During the visit, Evans has urged China to do more to protect patents and has presided over the signing of three business deals between U.S. and Chinese companies, saying they would create American jobs. Chao has announced agreements to "broaden cooperation" with Chinese agencies to promote workplace safety, manage pension programs and enforce wage laws.

But there has been little or no public comment by the U.S. delegation about the ruling Communist Party's practice of jailing independent labor activists such as Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, whose wives spoke out on Tuesday despite the risk of retribution.

"There's no other way for us," said Su Anhua, 57, Xiao's wife. "His condition is getting worse and we need help."

Yao, 53, and Xiao, 58, are serving seven- and four-year prison sentences, respectively, for leading a series of mass protests in northeastern China's rust belt in the spring of 2002. The demonstrations, among the largest to take place in China in recent years, attracted tens of thousands of laid-off workers demanding unpaid wages and punishment for corrupt officials.

The health of both men has deteriorated in prison, and they suffer serious heart problems, their wives said. Yao has lost feeling in half of his body and has difficulty moving his right leg. Xiao is having trouble breathing and was put on a respirator twice in December, they said.

Xiao is also blind in one eye and can see no more than a foot away with his other eye because of an injury he suffered during his arrest in March 2002. Prison doctors have recommended surgery, but Chinese authorities have not granted permission for him to be transferred to a local hospital, Su said.

She and Yao's wife, Guo Sujing, 54, urged the visiting U.S. officials to press the Chinese leadership to grant their husbands medical parole. There was no immediate response Tuesday night to a request for comment from Evans, but a spokeswoman for the labor secretary said Wednesday morning, "Secretary Chao will be bringing up this issue in her meetings with Chinese officials."

The State Department recently placed Yao and Xiao on a list of high-priority political prisoner cases to discuss with Chinese officials.

The Chinese government views independent labor activism as a threat to its authority, and it prohibits workers from forming their own labor unions, requiring them instead to join weak, party-run unions. In an unfair-trade complaint rejected by the Bush administration this year, the AFL-CIO argued that China's ban on independent unions was helping the government keep the prices of Chinese products unfairly low, which resulted in the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But some economists, including Nicholas Lardy of the Institute for International Economics, say China's labor pool is so large that ending the ban on unions and other violations of workers' rights would not raise Chinese wages and prices as sharply as the AFL-CIO argues.

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, center, introduces Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, right, to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao during a meeting in Beijing. Evans and Chao are in China to discuss trade and labor issues.