By Alice Hung
TAIPEI, Apr 20 (Reuters) Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian criticised China's one-party rule today, saying people on the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own will not accept unification unless it embraces democracy.
Taiwan is nervously watching a four-day visit to the United States by Chinese President Hu Jintao, especially a summit later today with President George W Bush.
Hu is expected to seek assurances that Washington will give no leeway to Taiwan's independence-leaning Chen.
Speaking at a carefully timed meeting with Chinese pro-democracy activists, Chen blasted Beijing's human rights record and touted the island's free-wheeling democracy.
''We do not oppose the Chinese people, what we oppose is the Chinese Communist Party, its one-party, authoritarian rule,'' he told the dissidents, according to a statement from his office.
''China is not a problem, the problem lies with the Chinese Communists,'' said Chen, who has pushed for a separate Taiwanese identity since he took office in 2000.
Beijing views the island as a breakaway province to be brought back to the fold, by force if necessary. It has vowed to attack Taiwan if it declares formal independence.
In February, Chen scrapped a dormant but politically significant body aimed at one day reuniting China and Taiwan, angering Beijing.
''We can't have 'ultimate unification' as the only option. We must have a referendum and the freedom to choose,'' Chen said, defending his decision.
''I hope when China, the sleeping lion wakes up, it will become a responsible stakeholder. The idea may be naive, but it's worth dreaming,'' Chen said.
A worried Taiwan has set up a high-level task force to monitor Hu's visit around the clock, and it has urged Bush not to criticise its president in front of Hu.
With two years left in his second -- and final -- term, the president's popularity has tumbled to a record low, in part because of an impasse in relations with China.
A poll by cable news network TVBS yesterday showed Chen's approval rating at 13 per cent, the lowest among Taiwan's top 10 politicians, compared with 70 per cent by popular opposition leader Ma Ying-jeou, whose party favours closer ties with the mainland.
Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and considers the mainland communist authorities as China's sole legitimate government. But it is also obliged by law to help Taiwan defend itself.
President Bush vowed early in his administration to do ''whatever it took'' to defend the island. But as China's alarm grew over what it saw as Chen creeping towards independence, Bush -- with China's Premier Wen Jiabao at his side -- warned Taiwan in 2003 against upsetting the status quo.
REUTERS SHB BST1640