Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a sweeping crackdown on civil society since taking power in 2012, targeting everyone from human rights lawyers to celebrity gossip bloggers.
Hundreds of activists have been detained in the past five years while internet censorship has intensified.
And China became the first country since Nazi Germany to allow a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in state custody when democracy activist Liu Xiaobo succumbed to liver cancer under heavy police guard in July.
But some 300 participants gathered in Beijing's Great Hall of the People to hear about the country's "human rights development path with Chinese characteristics" at the South-South Human Rights Forum.
Some attendees came from countries with their own checkered human rights record.
"There's no one size fits all approach in human rights practices," said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. "No one is in a position to lecture others on human rights."
He highlighted China's achievements in poverty reduction as an example of the country's efforts to improve rights.
Beijing says it has reduced its poverty rate to 4% and seeks to eradicate poverty by 2020.
But forum attendee Zhu Liyu, deputy director of the Centre for Human Rights at Renmin University, pointed out that such calculations were based on the country's official poverty line, much lower than that of other nations.
"The standard for poverty here is very low. I think we should raise it," he told AFP.
The overseas NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders said Thursday that China's focus on economic development had taken a toll.
"In the past few decades, this 'China model' has left behind countless people in China, victimised by breakneck growth at the expense of basic protection from discrimination, exploitation, and abuse of power," it said in a statement.
"The 'secret' of the 'China success' hinges on squashed protests, silenced complaints, and swollen jails and extrajudicial holding cells," it added.
The inaugural forum comes two months after Xi outlined his vision of turning China into a major superpower by mid-century at a Communist Party congress that confirmed his status as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.
In November, Donald Trump repeatedly praised Xi during his state visit to Beijing during which the US president did not publicly address China's human rights record.
The forum included diplomats, scholars and government officials from developing countries, as well as representatives from the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation.
"This is China's answer to the question of where human society is heading," Wang said of the forum.
Representatives of countries such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan with questionable human rights track records of their own took to the podium to extoll the Chinese model.
Burundi's presidential office spokesperson Willy Nyamttwe said he was honoured to attend the forum as his country sought "solutions that can counterbalance Western diktats that through their propaganda instruments, the media and NGOs, are tarnishing the image of developing countries."
Last month, UN human rights investigators said they believed Burundi's top leaders had committed crimes against humanity.