Officials from the Supreme People's Procuratorate said the new guidelines on petty crimes published on Wednesday do not mean the country will continue to indulge or tolerate these crimes.
The guidelines are an efficient and internationally acceptable way to deal with these crimes and educate wrongdoers, a spokesman for the Supreme People's Procuratorate, Tong Jianming, told China Daily.
The new guidelines extend leniency to minors, the elderly, and people who have committed minor crimes because of poverty.
According to the new standards, procuratorial departments will not necessarily pursue charges against those whose petty crimes target neighbors, relatives or friends if they plead guilty, apologize and voluntarily offer compensation.
Other suspects to be exempted include those without vicious motives as well as minor accessories in criminal cases.
"All people are equal before the law, and punishment does not necessarily mean throwing a suspect into prison," Tong said.
"To prosecute a suspect or not will be carefully assessed on a case by case basis in line with Chinese Criminal Procedure Law and approved by a procuratorial committee."
The new standards have sparked debate on Sina.com, a major news portal. Many feared the extension of leniency could "affect social stability".
Some said criminals from poor economic backgrounds would commit crimes again if their situation remained unchanged.
Tong said once a person is suspected of a petty crime, but exempt from prosecution, the suspicion itself is a form of punishment.
Although a person may not be prosecuted, he or she could still be liable to a stern warning, ordered to repent, or compensate the victim.
Those guilty could also face detention or labor education.
The aggrieved party, if not satisfied, can also institute legal proceedings.
The new standards also stipulate that non-prosecution cases are subject to public evaluations.
"All the measures intensify supervision and inspection of non-prosecution decisions and insures justice," Tong said.
Shi Weizhong, an official with the procuratorate's public prosecution division, said people have been concerned with crime in recent years and have called for the imposition of heavier penalties.
"Under such circumstances society is prone to ignore, not tolerate or sympathize with those associated with petty crimes," Shi said.
There is a big difference between an occasional theft because of poor economic circumstances and a habitual thief, he said.
Fan Chongyi, director of criminal procedural law at the Chinese University of Politics and Law, said the new guidelines strike a balance between punishing the guilty and protecting citizens' lawful rights. He hailed it as "tremendous progress in the protection of human rights".