China is planning to close a legal loophole that allowed some men to be charged with relatively light penalties after having sex with girls under the age of 14, state media announced on Monday following public outrage over high-profile offenders including a school administrator.
A proposed amendment to China's penal code calls for eliminating the charge of "prostitution with underage girls." If the measure is approved, any form of sexual intercourse with girls under 14 would be considered rape and subject to harsher penalties, including death.
The current penalty for prostitution with underage girls is five to 15 years in jail.
The proposal has been submitted to Chinese lawmakers for consideration, the state-run China News Service said. It wasn't immediately clear when the National People's Congress would decide on the plan.
Members of the public and legal scholars have been upset that offenders are charged with "prostitution with underage girls" after being caught having sex with young girls.
Compared to rape, the crime does not carry the same social stigma, and it also assigns some blame to the young victims by suggesting they use sex to seek favors such as cash, critics have argued.
Advocates for children's rights say it fails to protect underage girls.
The push to change the law has gained momentum over the past several years when a string of sex scandals involving young girls have surfaced.
In 2009, six officials in the southwestern province of Guizhou were charged with the prostitution crime after they were found to have had sex with girls who were coerced into prostitution, including three under age 14.
In 2013, a primary school principal was caught spending a night with four schoolgirls - all under the age of 14 - in a hotel room in southern China's Hainan province. Amid a public outcry, the principal was fired and charged with rape.