Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing, is critically ill in prison and receiving medical treatment for ailments related to old age, an official newspaper said Wednesday.

The report in the English-language China Daily, quoting a Ministry of Justice official, was the first authoritative confirmation in the official press of persistent rumors during the past two years that Jiang, 74, was seriously ill.Jiang, a one-time actress who was Mao's fourth wife, rose to virtually absolute political power during the turbulent 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution as the leader of a group of radical communist party functionaries known as the "Gang of Four."

She is serving a life sentence for orchestrating more than 30,000 politically inspired murders and the persecutions of hundreds of thousands of other people during the pitched political battles of the chaotic decade-long period.