HOWEVER distasteful China's proposed law on ''improving the quality of the population'' might appear to Western eyes, Chinese government officials insist legislation is urgently required if China is to effectively control its rapidly rising population and, what's more, not impinge upon the civil liberties of the individual. Foreign governments and religious groups who criticise China's birth control and eugenics policies are not aware of China's actual conditions and do not understand the true nature of the government's policies, they say. Officials say there are between 200,000 and 300,000 disabled children born in the mainland every year and China, as a developing country, simply does not have the resources to cope adequately with such additional burdens. The number of specialist schools and hospitals for people with disabilities is severely limited and despite the efforts of Deng Pufang's Federation for the Disabled, care for the handicapped remains very backward. With an overall population growth of 1.6 million every year, China has enough problems worrying about providing for its ''normal'' population, let alone the additional care needed by the disabled, they say. Moreover, officials maintain the new law will be entirely voluntary and the state will not force people with mental or physical disabilities or those carrying hereditary diseases to be sterilised or have abortions unless they agree. ''The principle is that the state will only give advice to the masses and the willingness of the masses will be needed to implement the law,'' said a senior official at the Ministry of Public Health in Beijing. ''This law is simply designed to protect the health of mothers and their children by preventing congenital diseases. It is a positive, not a negative method,'' the official, who requested anonymity, said. Western observers, however, pointed out that when Chinese government officials say they only intend to ''give advice'' there is an implicit assumption that advice will be heeded. ''Chinese governments have also adopted a very paternalistic attitude towards the people. The assumption is always that 'we know best' and that 'what we are doing is for your own good', '' a Western diplomat in Beijing said. ''Officials do not expect people to disagree with them or not take their advice. And this is particularly true in the case of people with disabilities who are traditionally viewed as being inferior and therefore, could not possibly know what is best for them,'' he added. Eugenics, or ''better birth work'' as it is euphemistically known here, has been extensively practised throughout China for several years, particularly in poorer inland provinces where there are next to no resources or facilities to properly care for mentally and physically disabled people. The poverty stricken northwest province of Gansu led the way when it introduced a law requiring the sterilisation of mentally handicapped people in 1989. Provincial family planning officials sterilised more than 1,000 ''congenitally retarded'' people with an IQ of less than 49 in the first year of the law's operation. Local officials said the measures were designed to ''solve the poverty problem in part by raising the quality of the population,'' but the methods used to determine those who should or should not be allowed to conceive children were criticised by Westernmedical experts as ''exceedingly crude''. There is concern in China that should the new law go into effect, local officials might feel obligated to enforce the legislation even more rigorously in order to show their enthusiasm for government policy and please their superiors, even if that means trampling on individuals' rights. The health ministry official conceded that there had been some problems in carrying out the eugenics policy at a provincial level but said the new national law was designed in part to upgrade and improve the work of local level officials. ''In the past, the 'better birth work' in some local areas was a little rough and their methods of judging congenital disability were rather slap dash. This inevitably led to some dissatisfaction,'' the official said. The new law stipulates that all those involved in pre-marital checks, eugenics and pre-birth diagnosis should be approved by county level government and should be subject to a rigorous training programme, he said. The emphasis of the new law is to improve the work of the medical profession and specifically guard against coercion of the masses. ''The law will not stipulate any obligations on the part of the common citizens and, in fact, only stipulates some obligations for the medical profession,'' the official said. ''We just want to take preventative measures. The law will not affect disabled children who have already been born, in fact we will provide additional help and welfare for them,'' he said. Despite the law's rather unfortunate language about reducing ''inferior births'' and ''raising the quality of the population,'' most independent analysts agree the legislation is not designed to establish the Chinese people as a new master race. ''I don't think there are any ideological overtones in this legislation as there were in Nazi Germany for example,'' a Western population expert said. ''It is rather a typical piece of Chinese population control legislation. It may appear crude and distasteful to Western eyes but the Chinese government is convinced it really has little choice in the matter,'' he added.