Police in Beijing have detained dozens of protesters gathered at the foreign ministry on the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The protesters held up letters of complaint and called for action on illegal detentions and other abuses.
China is planning to publish a major assessment of human rights in the coming months.
But the people outside the ministry complained that ordinary citizens would not be allowed to contribute to it.
Many of those at the protest had individual complaints, according to the BBC's Beijing correspondent Quentin Sommerville.
Some sought justice for dead relatives, and they carried photographs of their family members; others gave out details of land disputes, illegal detentions and incidents of local corruption.
Yang Guiyin, a middle-aged woman from Shanxi, told the Associated Press that her land had been taken away four years ago for development, and she had still not received any compensation.
"Today is human rights day, but there are no human rights in China. I want my land, I want to eat," she said.
"I came here because I want to have justice for my family," 53-year-old Wu Zhongbao told the French news agency AFP.
Mr Wu claims his mother was beaten to death by police when their home in Jiangsu was forcefully demolished - a charge denied by the authorities there.
The police arrived quickly to stem the protest, cordoning off the demonstrators and later flagging down a public bus to take them away.
China has detained several activists in the run-up to the anniversary of the UN rights declaration.
Liu Xiaobo, famous for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, was taken away on Monday evening, and other dissidents including Zhang Zuhua, Chen Xi and Shen Youlian have also been detained in recent days.
Mr Liu had signed Charter 08, an online letter calling for democracy in China, timed to coincide with the anniversary.
The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a year before the Communist Party came to power in China.
The Chinese government is frequently criticised abroad for its poor human rights record, and China's foreign ministry has been charged with drafting a major human rights action plan.
But critics say the human rights report will have little clout and will deal only with principles, rather than the hard realities of the thousands of human rights abuses which take place in China every year.
For many Chinese petitioners, the only way to complain about local corruption and abuses happening in their area is to come to the capital to ask the central government for help.
Their plight is frequently ignored by Chinese media, but on Monday the state-controlled Beijing News published a report admitting that officials in the city of Xintai had abducted citizens who had lodged petitions, and sent them to mental hospitals.