The Bush State Department authorized a visa for former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui Friday to travel to the United States.  Lee has been a thorn in the side of the Beijing government for years and an earlier visit by him strained relations between China and the U.S. 

Mr.. Lee is scheduled to visit Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in early May for ceremonies.  Lee holds a doctorate in agricultural engineering from the college.

"We consider Mr. Lee to be a private individual," Charles Hunter, a State Department spokesman, said. "Travel of private persons between Taiwan and the United States is a normal part of our unofficial relationship."

Lee submitted his visa application to the U.S. office in Taiwan where it was approved, based on guidelines set by American laws and regulations, Hunter said.

In deference to Beijing the United States severely restricts travel by Taiwanese officials to the United States. But there are no restrictions on the former president's activities while in the United States, Hunter said.

Mr. Lee's visit to Cornell in 1995 severely taxed Washington-Beijing  relations. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher had indicated to the Chinese government that Mr. Lee would not be permitted to visit his alma mater.  But Congressional and public relations pressure prompted the Clinton administration to change course and allow Mr. Lee to visit.  The Chinese government recalled its ambassador to Washington in protest.

Mr. Lee used his Cornell visit to criticize the government in Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province.  During a speech at the school, Mr. Lee criticized the communist leadership in Beijing and China's authoritarian regime.

He recalled his days as a student in the 1960s, telling the audience that "despite the turbulence [of the period], the American democratic system prevailed.  It was also the time that I first recognized that full democracy could engender ultimately peaceful change.  I returned to my homeland determined to make my contribution toward achieving full democracy for our society."

The decision to allow Mr. Lee to visit comes while the Chinese goverment retains the downed U.S. surveillance plane on Hainan Island.  Chinese and U.S. negotiators have been discussing the return of the plane in recent days.  It is unclear if the decision to allow Mr. Lee to visit will influence China's willingness to return the plane. 

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report