Past HBO shows might be popular in China, but the first episode of Watchmen isn’t winning many fans there. 

According to Chinese netizens, the show’s sins include straying too far from the source material, being too politically correct, and perhaps worst of all, resembling the current situation in Hong Kong.

“Police. Masked people. [The show is saying:] Let me tell you about Hong Kong. This is unacceptable,” a Douban commenter wrote.

Rorschach masks are now being worn by white supremacists thirty years after the original story. (Picture: HBO)

Even when they’re censored or blocked, HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld have generated a lot of excitement in China. But Watchmen, the network’s latest show to generate a lot of hype, is proving more divisive. While it’s not officially available in China, that’s never stopped Chinese viewers before.

Watchmen is based on the eponymous 1986 comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. But this isn’t a direct adaptation.

HBO’s Watchmen is set 30 years after the events of the original story, and it looks almost nothing like its inspiration. The first episode starts with a character in the midst of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in Oklahoma, during which more than 300 black people were killed by a white mob. It then jumps ahead to 2019, with hate crime and racial tensions playing a key role in the show. It’s a clear departure from Moore’s story, which centers on nuclear threats and geopolitics during the Cold War era.

“You hang the Watchmen name on the show. But then you go on to film [a show] about racism? What does this have to do with the original comic?” a Chinese viewer asked on Zhihu

“I was dumbfounded as I watched this show,” another Zhihu commenter echoed. “They made a show about political correctness while hanging the Watchmen name out there?”

Some are even more blunt about their aversion to the show being so racially charged. 

“Haven't seen such a stupid American TV show for a long time. When it comes to ideals, it educates you on history… This is baizuo, best of the trash,” a Chinese netizen wrote, using a Chinese pejorative for Western liberals.

Some Western fans seem to be expressing similar opinions. The show currently has a score of 7.1 on IMDB, and many negative reviews also complain about differences with the comic.

The original 12-issue series from DC Comics has become one of the most widely lauded graphic novels ever written and is treated as the peak of the superhero genre. The original story got the Hollywood treatment with a 2009 film directed by Zack Snyder. But mixed reviews and controversy surrounding Alan Moore’s disdain for adaptations of his work (he ultimately removed his name from the film) means it’s not well-remembered among fans. So it makes sense that HBO would want to steer clear of the original story.

It’s not necessarily shocking that the show has gone in this direction, though. Besides being topical in the US, Watchmen’s Rorschach was created as an “extremely right-wing character.” Moore based the character on the Question and the radically right-wing Mr. A, two comic characters created by the Ayn Rand-influenced artist Steve Ditko -- more widely known as the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

So a right-wing hate group wearing Rorschach masks and attacking police at least has some thematic ties to the original story. But many Chinese viewers couldn’t help but be reminded of the current anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

“Rioters, masks, beating up police, the world is indeed connected,” a commenter wrote on Douban.

While hate crimes in the US are nothing like the current protests in Hong Kong, where protesters say they’re fighting for democracy and autonomy, the show’s anti-government and anti-police themes appear to have struck a few nerves.

Incidentally, Watchmen is not the only piece of recent pop culture that has Chinese netizens thinking of the Hong Kong protests. Another DC adaptation -- Joker -- started a similar discussion online

Like Watchmen, Joker isn’t officially available in China, where media content is strictly controlled. In order to watch either, people have to travel outside mainland China or pirate them online.

Watchmen’s slow start in China -- where the show has a middling 7.9 on Douban -- contrasts with the many glowing reviews from critics in the West so far. 

Western TV critics, many of whom got to see the first six episodes ahead of the show’s public premiere, seem to appreciate the decision to put hate crimes front and center, with the Guardian calling it “the perfect superhero story for our tattered times.”

On Rotten Tomatoes, 95% of reviews from critics are positive, with an average rating of 8.7. 

But don’t ask Alan Moore what he thinks of it. His name isn’t on the show, either.