The sentencing of a child molester to five years in prison last month sparked public controversy and prompted calls by national legislators for tougher penalties for those who prey on children.
The lawmakers said the current punishment for child molesters in the Criminal Law was too lenient and that harsher measures were needed.
On June 17, Wang Zhenhua, a real estate tycoon, was sentenced to five years in prison by the Putuo District People's Court in Shanghai, after he was convicted of molesting a nine-year-old girl last year.
Wang's sentence quickly triggered heated discussion on Chinese social media platforms, with some netizens complaining that such a light punishment made it hard to crack down on molestation, let alone safeguard children.
Under the law, people who molest others face up to five years in prison, unless they commit the offense in public places or to children. In those cases, they can be imprisoned for up to 15 years, depending on how serious their offenses are.
This means a child molester could be sentenced to just five years if their behavior is not deemed serious, said Zhang Yong, a member of Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
"I don't think such a penalty can deter offenders or is suitable considering the harm the children suffered," he said during the latest session of the NPC Standing Committee at the end of June.
At the meeting, a draft revision of the Criminal Law was submitted for first review.
Compared with the punishment meted out to child molesters in other countries, "ours are relatively mild", he added.
Zhu Mingchun, another member of the NPC Standing Committee, said child molesters in Singapore face a 20-year prison term, while those in the United States can be imprisoned for 250 years.
"Molestation can cause great physical and psychological injuries in juvenile victims, and the harm is sometimes permanent," Zhu said.
He called on the top legislature to include increased penalties for child molesters in the revised law.
Fellow lawmaker Deng Li said repeat offenders as well as those who molest young children should be heavily punished.
A report issued by the Supreme People's Procuratorate last month said prosecutors took 56 per cent of child molestation suspects to court last year, up from 37 per cent in 2017.
The crackdown against offenders has never stopped, but the problem has not been alleviated, said Yuan Ningning, a senior researcher of laws related to children at China University of Political Science and Law, "mainly because charges for causing sexual harm to children in our current Criminal Law are not clear, and corresponding punishments are not strong".
Yuan said the length of prison terms faced by child molesters needed more research when amending the law.
"The most urgent and important thing is to distinguish crimes relating to children from similar offenses involving adults," he said.
"For example, we can set a specialized crime of child molestation in the law instead of taking it as a situation under the charge of molestation."
Molestation refers to sexually assaulting someone in a way that does not include sexual intercourse, such as touching or kissing, "but the damage caused by these behaviors to a child is different from that to an adult," Yuan said.
Situations in which offenders can be deemed to have "seriously molested a child" should also be clarified in the law or listed through judicial interpretation to help judges apply the law more accurately, he added.