By Jane Lee
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Humor may not always translate well, but Jon Stewart is picking up millions of fans in China, where his gloves-off political satire is refreshing for many in a country where such criticism is a rarity - especially when directed at their own leaders.
A recent segment on North Korea scored over 4 million views on microblogger Sina Weibo, and even stodgy state broadcaster CCTV has used Stewart's "The Daily Show" in a report, though they wouldn't let a Chinese version of him near their cameras.
Recent popular sequences have included one in which Stewart lampooned the Chinese hackers who hacked into the New York Times computer system earlier this year, wondering if that was the best they could do.
But far from squelching Stewart, CCTV even used one of his sequences on Guantanamo Bay to criticize Obama in a regular broadcast - a move widely derided by netizens.
In China, however, such criticism tends not to be welcomed by the government. Dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who regularly criticizes the government for what he sees as its flouting of the rule of law and human rights, was detained for 81 days in 2011, sparking an international outcry.
"There's nothing like political satire here," said David Moses, who studies and writes about Chinese humor.
Though the exact timing of Stewart's entrance to China is unclear, many have been watching him for four or five years, mainly through the Internet and Weibo.
"Being a journalist, you have to find out the truth," said Mao Moyu, a Shanghai journalism student who got hooked on Stewart four years ago.
"If there's ... something that hurts the public interest you have to stand out, no matter how sharp the thing is. You have to stand out and say that's not right."
Part of Stewart's popularity is that he seems cool to young people in love with all things foreign, but a thirst for satire that is not afraid to show its face contributes too, Moses said.
The closest thing that exists in China is coded references and puns that tweak official pronouncements or sound like obscenities.
"That's just shooting a finger at the government. But this is full-fledged jokes and routines about North Korea or about China and trade...It's just what they wish they could do here," Moses said.
Free translations into Chinese by Stewart's fans have boosted his popularity. In fact, one - known as Gu Da Bai Hua - now even has his own fan base.
China's thirst for foreign satire is so great that Stewart is not the only popular U.S. comic. Some Chinese say they prefer rival television satirist Stephen Colbert - although humor may not be the only issue at stake.
"I think I like Stephen Colbert's pronunciation more because it's much clearer for me," said Shanghai student Peng Cheng.
(Editing by Elaine Lies and Michael Perry)