GENEVA China, urged by Western and some Latin American countries to ensure political and religious freedoms, insisted on Monday that it is guided by the rule of law and is committed to protect and promote human rights.
And while European delegations in the United Nations Human Rights Council called on Beijing to end the death penalty and halt torture in prisons, many Asian and African countries hailed China as a beacon of progress and an example for them to follow.
"China is a state where the rule of law prevails," a top official of the Chinese Supreme Court told the 47-nation Council, while the chief Chinese delegate said: "China is fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights."
Backed by countries including Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Myanmar and Sudan, China's ambassador in Geneva, Li Baodong, accused countries who raised Tibet and the partly Muslim-populated region of Xiankiang of "politicizing" human rights issues.
Both regions have been the scene of unrest in recent years, especially Tibet where bloody anti-Chinese riots broke out last March which China says were inspired by the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and unidentified "foreign centers."
Li and his team appeared angered over references by France to reports from Chinese dissidents to "black jails," or secret prisons for government critics, and by Australian, British, and Czech mention of alleged persecution in Tibet.
The Beijing delegates bluntly denied that such prisons could exist or that torture was allowed in detention, as suggested by some Western speakers, and declared that Tibet -- and Xiankiang -- enjoyed full cultural and political freedoms.
The discussion came in a newly launched Council process called the "Universal Periodic Review," or UPR, under which all members of the United Nations are expected to submit themselves every four years to scrutiny of their human rights record.
But critics among independent rights bodies in developing as well as developed countries say bloc politics in the Council
prevent meaningful exchanges.
One such group, the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, described the Council -- which replaced the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2006 -- as a "mutual praise society," and questioned whether it served any useful purpose in its current form.
Western and Latin American countries including Argentina and Chile, who have asked pointed questions of each other when their reviews have come up, are in a minority in the body where an Islamic-African alliance is strong.
On Monday, Sri Lanka -- itself under fire in the West for its treatment of its Tamil minority -- denounced what it called "malign criticism of China," while Zimbabwe and Egypt hailed Beijing for major efforts to protect human rights.
However China, which regards public discussion of its rights practices as interference in its internal affairs, held out an olive branch to its critics with Li saying in his final remarks that Beijing was open to backstage talks with its critics.
"China is ready to exchange views through other channels on how to improve the protection of human rights in China," he said, though adding that such exchanges had to take place "on the basis of equality and mutual respect."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)