BEIJING (Reuters) - China denounced on Thursday U.S. criticism of its human rights record in an annual tit-for-tat exchange, saying the United States should put its own house in order first.

The U.S. State Department sharply criticized China on Wednesday, saying detention and harassment of dissidents, petitioners, human rights defenders and defense lawyers peaked around high-profile events such as the Beijing Olympic Games in August.

China's Foreign Ministry said China maintained a high level of protection and respect for human rights.

Over the 30 years of development and reform we have seen a constant development of the economy, religious freedom has been protected, and all of China's ethnic groups increasingly have more and more freedom and rights, spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a news conference.

We urge the U.S. to own up to its own human rights problems, and not use human rights as an excuse or publish human rights reports in order to meddle in others' internal affairs.

(Reporting by Lucy Hornby; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait