CHINA'S Foreign Ministry yesterday accused the BBC of degenerate ethics in producing a documentary portraying Mao Zedong as a man with a sexual appetite for young women, and said Beijing was considering the possibility of retaliation. Exactly what China might do to punish either the BBC or Britain was not clear. On Friday the Chinese Embassy in London said the BBC was ''fully aware of the consequences'' if the programme was broadcast tomorrow as scheduled. Asked what specific action China might take by way of retaliation, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said: ''The government is considering the question, but there is no answer yet.'' However, there were unconfirmed suggestions yesterday that China might choose to respond by ordering the closure of the BBC bureau in Beijing. A British Embassy spokesman said the Charge d'Affaires, Philip McLean, was called to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing more than a week ago in relation to the BBC documentary. ''As far as we're concerned our standard position on the BBC remains the same. It's an independent organisation and there's nothing we can do to influence it,'' the spokesman said. As for any possible retaliation against Britain itself, the spokesman said ''it would be very odd''. One possibility is the Chinese may expel one of the BBC reporters stationed in Beijing, or close down the bureau. The Chinese have since last June refused to accredit journalists put forward by The Times and Guardian newspapers of London. The precise reasons are not clear, but the row over Hong Kong and the British media's emphasis on politics in reporting China are thought to be contributing factors. So far China's response to the documentary has been to fight back with verbal attacks on the BBC. ''Mao Zedong is a great historic person who is loved by the Chinese people and respected by the people of the world. Any personal attacks launched against him with malicious slander and using mean tricks will not damage his historic position,'' the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said. ''On the contrary, it will only expose the degeneration of the journalistic ethics of the authors of the film, and show that they are hostile to China and Chinese people.'' In Hong Kong, Xinhua (New China News Agency) deputy director Zhang Zunsheng challenged the BBC to justify screening the programme in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of Mao's birth. ''Of course as a great leader he had made some mistakes, but nobody can write out his historical achievements. If anyone attempted to depreciate or even undermine his image at the time when we celebrate his 100th anniversary, all Chinese will not accept it,'' Mr Zhang said. ''Why does the BBC have to do that? They should give their own reply.'' Mao's penchant for young women, one of the themes of the BBC documentary, has been known within political and intellectual circles for years, even though the subject has been taboo for the Chinese media. Aides to the founder of the People's Republic would seek out some of the most beautiful women in the country, asking them if they would be willing ''to serve the chairman'', said a Chi- nese source who attended dance parties where Mao was a guest. The BBC documentary comes at a time when the Communist Party of China is trying, for its own political ends, to polish Mao's image. After his death, the Communist Party declared he had been a great leader, but had made serious mistakes, such as his Cultural Revolution, a period of virtual civil war. However, Mao now serves as an important propaganda tool, and in the run-up to celebrations of his 100th birthday, which falls on Boxing Day, the party has played up his successes and ignored his failures. By shoring up Mao's prestige, the party hopes to reinforce its own claims to political legitimacy as the liberator of the Chinese people. ''They used to say more critical things about Mao, but now we hear only the good, because the party thinks this helps its own image among the people,'' a Beijing intellectual said. There is ''an attempt to revive an uncritical image of Mao to strengthen [the leadership's] legitimacy and emphasise continuity,'' said Sidney Rittenberg, an American who joined the Chinese Communist Party around the time of the revolution, knew Mao personally, and spent 16 years in solitary confinement under Mao's rule. According to Dr Li Suizhi, Mao's private doctor from 1954 until the leader died in 1976, Mao urged that sacrifice was needed for the revolution, but he himself held dance parties at least twice a week in the company of girls recruited from the military'scultural troupes. ''He never said a word about the hundreds of thousands who starved to death,'' Dr Li told the BBC. As for the girls at Mao's dance parties, ''he might even bring them to his bedroom''. Contacted by telephone, Dr Li, who now lives in self-imposed exile near Chicago, told the Sunday Morning Post that details of Mao's private life formed only a small part of his interview with the BBC. ''I won't put too much emphasis'' on Mao's private life, Dr Li said.