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Lee set to promote Taiwan independence on U.S. trip

Lee set to promote Taiwan independence on U.S. trip

Former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) heads to Washington this week to pedal his vision of an independent Taiwan, aiming to draw international attention to China's military threats against the island.

Once branded by Beijing as a "splittist" who should be tossed into the "dustbin of history," the fiercely pro-independence Lee is set to further irk China by touring the U.S. capital just as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visits Beijing.

Lee will meet U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and hold a news conference at the National Press Club on Thursday. Rumsfeld visits China from Tuesday to Thursday.

"The gravest threat the Beijing regime faces is not the Taiwan people determining their own future, but rather democracy, which has given power to the people, which threatens the legitimacy and existence of the totalitarian regime," Lee said in a speech in Alaska, according to Taiwan media reports.

The 82-year-old former president stepped down in 2000 after a 12-year tenure and retains much influence in Taiwan, where he is venerated by some as the father of Taiwan democracy and is a leading advocate of independence from China.

When Lee went to the United States in 1995 to attend a reunion at his old university, Cornell, he so outraged China that it fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in menacing war games.

Beijing, which considers any country hosting independence-leaning Taiwan politicians as pandering to their views, had briefly downgraded ties with Washington and froze what had been warming semi-official talks with Taipei.

"His aim in going to the U.S. is to engage in 'Taiwan independence' separatist activities, interfering in Sino-U.S. ties," China's foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said.

"We have expressed our strongest dissatisfaction and opposition to Lee Teng-hui going to the U.S. with the U.S. side."

Washington, which recognizes China's claim over Taiwan but remains Taipei's most important ally and main arms supplier, said Lee is on a private visit.

While in the United States, Lee is expected to promote a pro-independence movement to formalize Taiwan's de facto sovereignty by changing the island's official name to the Republic of Taiwan - a move China has warned could lead to war.

Taiwan's formal title is the Republic of China, a legacy dating back to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) lost the mainland to Mao Zedong and shifted the Nationalist government to the island.

From Alaska, Lee is due to travel to New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. He will return home on October 24.

Lee is the spiritual leader of the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which is allied with President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) ruling party.