UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - China's President Xi Jinping told the United Nations on Sunday that all Chinese women have the opportunity to excel, touting his government's record on women's rights as the United States slammed Beijing and others for jailing women for their views.
China and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon co-hosted a U.N. meeting of world leaders on gender equality and women's empowerment, raising eyebrows among some western diplomats and human rights defenders in China and abroad.
"As the Chinese people pursue a happy life, all Chinese women have the opportunity to excel in life and make their dreams come true," Xi told the meeting on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly.
China was criticized internationally for detaining five women who were taken into custody on the weekend of March 8, International Women's Day, after they planned to demonstrate against sexual harassment on public transport.
While the women were released a month later, they say their status as criminal suspects has stopped them from returning to activism and had a chilling effect on women's rights groups.
"If you want to empower women, don't imprison them on the basis of their views or beliefs," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power - a member of President Barack Obama's cabinet - said in a statement.
Over the past couple of weeks, Power has highlighted 20 cases of women unjustly detained around the world for their beliefs or defense of the rights of others, including Chinese journalist Gao Yu, 71, who was jailed in April for seven years for providing state secrets to foreign contacts.
Xi's administration has detained hundreds of rights activists in the past two years in what some rights groups say is the worst clampdown on dissent in the Communist-led country for two decades.
"In too many places - from China to Egypt, from Russia to Venezuela - women have been swept up in repressive crackdowns on civil society, and deprived of their universal rights and fundamental freedoms," Obama said in a statement.
Obama's former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate, also weighed in on Twitter: "Xi hosting a meeting on women's rights at the U.N. while persecuting feminists? Shameless."
Xi said China will do more to enhance gender equality as its "basic state policy" and called on developed countries to "scale up financial and technical assistance to developing countries." He said China would donate $10 million to the U.N. gender equality body, U.N. Women, to "support women's development worldwide."
Chinese officials have said the country's achievements on women's issues are clear and that authorities handled the recent case of the five activists according to law.
Li Junhua, the director general of the department of international organizations and conferences at China's Foreign Ministry said some of the criticisms were "groundless" and other people were just misinformed.
"I believe the people in the best position to judge the state of women's issues in China are Chinese people, particularly Chinese women," Li told reporters at a briefing.
Ahead of Sunday's U.N. meeting the five women said in a letter: "We sincerely hope ... President Xi can lead by example."
China has also faced international criticism for effectively placing Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, under house arrest since 2010.
Reporting by Michael Martina and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Andrew Hay and Michael Perry