By Stephanie Nebehay and Sui-Lee Wee
GENEVA/BEIJING (Reuters) - Western countries accused China on Tuesday of arresting activists, curbing Internet use and suppressing ethnic minorities, as the United Nations formally reviewed its rights record for the first time since Xi Jinping became president.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, which reviews all U.N. members every four years, convened in Geneva, where sharply opposing views of China's human rights record were exposed.
Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department's bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, said China should cease using harassment, detention and arrest to silence human rights activists and their families and friends.
"We're concerned that China suppresses freedoms of assembly, association, religion and expression..., harasses, detains and punishes activists..., targets rights defenders' family members and friends and implements policies that undermine the human rights of ethnic minorities," Zeya said.
China's special envoy Wu Hailong, who led Beijing's delegation in Geneva, said talks with other countries in Geneva had been "open, candid... and cooperative."
But he added that some of the accusations leveled at China had been "based on misunderstandings and prejudices."
Hours before the session began, Tibetan activists scaled the building and unfurled a banner reading: "China fails human rights in Tibet - U.N. stand up for Tibet".
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it was willing to work with other countries on human rights as long as it was in a spirit of mutual respect.
"But we firmly oppose those kinds of biased and malicious criticisms," she added, referring to the Tibetan protest.
U.N. security detained the four activists from Denmark and Britain for several hours, and a spokeswoman for Students for a Free Tibet later said they had not been charged and were expected to return to their home countries.
POVERTY A KEY CONCERN
China faces criticism from some Western countries including the United States for what they say is the religious repression of ethnic minorities, including Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in the vast western Xinjiang region.
China has responded to unrest in both regions by intensifying a crackdown by security forces, and Xi, who took office in March, has showed no sign of easing harsh policies.
Echoing concerns voiced by Germany and Switzerland, British ambassador Karen Pierce called on China to further reduce the number of crimes carrying the death penalty.
A Chinese diplomat told the Geneva talks: "Our government decision is to retain the death penalty but exercise strict control of its use."
Wu said minority ethnic groups in China were treated fairly, and added that a priority for authorities was to reduce poverty.
"Nearly 100 million people live in poverty. Some of them don't even have enough food and clothes. There is a saying that a 'hungry crowd is an angry crowd'. Big problems will occur if we cannot feed the poor."
Activists voiced disappointment at China's position at the session. On Friday, its delegation is due to say which of the Council's recommendations it will accept or reject.
"I think that there wasn't really an openness to criticism," Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, told a news briefing. "It was clear from the Chinese delegation's responses that 'objective and frank' meant no criticism, or at least no criticism that they didn't control."
Some experts had thought the administration of Xi would be less hardline than his predecessors. Instead, critics say Xi has presided over a clamp down that has moved beyond the targeting of dissidents calling for political change.
For example, authorities have detained at least 16 activists who have demanded officials publicly disclose their wealth as well as scores of people accused of online "rumor-mongering".
"Xi Jinping has definitely taken the country backwards on human rights," prominent rights lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters.
The council has no binding powers. Its rotating membership of 47 states does not include China, although Beijing is expected to run for a place in early November. China's record was previously assessed in 2009 by the Geneva forum.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Megha Rajagopalan, Adam Rose, Michael Martina, and Beijing Newsroom; editing by Mike Collett-White)