China Blocks HBO Website After John Oliver Pokes Fun at Xi Jinping

John Oliver - The Show Continues - Screengrab - H 2018

The comedian's show 'Last Week Tonight' appears to have struck a nerve with a segment critiquing China's human rights record and Beijing's weird censorship of Winnie-the-Pooh.

China's censorship authorities are more than a little angry at John Oliver.

The comedian's name was wiped clean off Chinese social media last week after his HBO show Last Week Tonight aired a segment poking fun at Chinese President Xi Jinping. Now, China's regulators are cracking down on HBO itself.

According to Internet censorship watchdog, the HBO website has been inaccessible to mainland China's Internet users since Saturday.

HBO is distributed throughout the region by HBO Asia, a Singapore-based subsidiary. But the channel is only available in mainland China at “foreign housing compounds,” such as hotels and diplomatic residences. Last Week Tonight, in fact, was never even included in HBO Asia’s programming lineup, and, the now-blocked website, only appears as a promotional platform in China and offers no streamed content. So there is no chance anyone in China ever even saw the Xi Jinping segment by legal means.

Still, Oliver, far away though he may be, appears to have struck a deep nerve with his recent critique of two of China's most sensitive subjects: human rights and perceptions of its nearly all-powerful leader, Xi Jinping.

The 20-minute segment, which aired June 17 in the U.S., was a detailed denunciation of China’s human rights abuses, as well as the country's often brutal suppression of dissent. The comedy came in when Oliver highlighted Beijing's practice of censoring online mentions of Winnie-the-Pooh, because Xi is sometimes compared to the portly cartoon bear by Chinese Internet users — often in an affectionate way.

“Clamping down on Winnie-the-Pooh comparisons doesn’t exactly project strength,” Oliver said. “It suggests a weird insecurity.”

Chinese HBO fans, thankfully, aren't fully out of luck yet, however. Some of the network's most popular programming, including Game of Thrones, is carried by leading local streaming platform Tencent Video (Last Week Tonight was never among the content licensed by the Chinese company). So far, at least, Game of Thrones and the other shows on Tencent don't appear to have been affected by Beijing's HBO crackdown.