Signs of dissent were rare during the Beijing Olympics
China's human rights record worsened in some areas in 2008, the US state department concluded in its annual report on rights around the world.
The report accused China of harassing dissidents and increasing its repression of ethnic minorities.
It came a week after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a trip to China that co-operation should take precedence over tensions.
China said the US should "stop acting as a human rights guardian".
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said China firmly opposed any countries interfering in its internal affairs "under the pretext of human rights".
"We urge the US side to reflect on its own human rights problems," he told reporters on Thursday.
Earlier, the state news agency, Xinhua, said the report "turned a blind eye to the efforts and historic achievements China has made in human rights".
The BBC's James Reynolds in Beijing says the state department's report and China's response is a fairly standard annual exchange, which seems to have little practical impact on US-China relations.
During her recent trip to China, human rights activists had criticised Mrs Clinton for not speaking out over the issue.
However, the secretary of state said she had held candid discussions on human rights issues with her Chinese counterpart.
Among the other countries criticised were Russia and North Korea.
Russia had "continued a negative trajectory in its overall domestic human rights record", the report said.
In North Korea, it said, the human rights record "remained abysmal", giving the example of authorities killing babies at birth in prisons.
Other countries mentioned in an introduction to the report included:
Egypt, where the state department said there had been a decline in the government's respect for freedoms of speech, press, association and religion
- Iran, which the report said had intensified its systematic campaign of intimidation against reformers, academics, journalists and dissidents
- Zimbabwe, where the report said the systematic abuse of human rights had "increased dramatically" during 2008.
The state department's report said that in 2008 Chinese authorities had "committed extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions of prisoners, and used forced labour".
Cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities got worse in largely Muslim Xinjiang and in Buddhist Tibet, it said, with repression peaking around the time of protests in Tibet and last summer's Beijing Olympics.
The report also cited Chinese curbs on freedom of speech and the press, including the internet.
Overall, "pushback against demands for greater personal and political freedom continued in many countries across the globe" in 2008, the report said.
It said the most serious abuses were "where unaccountable rulers wielded unchecked power or there was government failure or collapse".
Karen Stewart, a state department spokeswoman, said the trends showed "the continuing need for vigorous United States diplomacy to speak out and act against human rights abuses at the same time as our country carefully reviews its own performance".
"We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community - whether by other governments or non-governmental actors - to be interference in our internal affairs," she said.
"Nor should other governments regard expressions about their performance as such."