TAIPEI (Reuters) - Democracy is not a crime and autocracy is the real "evil", Taiwan President Lai Ching-te said on Monday after China threatened to impose the death penalty in extreme cases for "diehard" Taiwan independence separatists.

China, which views Taiwan as its own territory, has made no secret of its dislike of Lai, who took office last month, saying he is a "separatist", and staged war games shortly after his inauguration.

On Friday, China ramped up its pressure on Taiwan by issuing new legal guidelines to punish those it says support the island's formal independence, though Chinese courts have no jurisdiction on the democratically governed island.

Asked about China's move at a news conference at the presidential office in Taipei, Lai first reiterated his sympathy for recent flooding in southern China before responding.

"I want to stress: democracy is not a crime; it's autocracy that is the real evil. China has absolutely no right to sanction Taiwan's people just because of the positions they hold. What's more, China has no right to go after Taiwan people's rights across borders," he said.

According China, anyone who does not uphold "reunification" is therefore a Taiwan independence supporter, Lai added.

"I also want to call on China to face up to the existence of the Republic of China and have exchanges and dialogue with Taiwan's democratically elected, legitimate government," he said, using Taiwan's formal name. "If this is not done, relations between Taiwan and China will only become more and more estranged."

Lai rejects Beijing's sovereignty claims and says only Taiwan's people can decide their future. He has repeatedly offered talks with China but been rebuffed.

China says any move by Taiwan to declare formal independence would be grounds to attack the island.

The government in Taipei says Taiwan is already an independent country, the Republic of China, and that it does not plan to change that. The Republican government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong's Communists.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Gerry Doyle)

By Ben Blanchard