BEIJING — Chinese viewers are boycotting Japanese toon “Ultraman” after their Prime Minister Wen Jiabao complained recently that his grandson spent too much time watching the superhero instead of homegrown cartoons.

“I sometimes take care of my grandson,” said Wen last month during a visit to Jiangtong Animation in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central south China. “But he always watches ‘Ultraman.’ He should watch more Chinese cartoons.”

He followed this up with a plea to animators to make interesting cartoons.

“Your work is meaningful. You should play a leading role in bringing Chinese culture to the world … let Chinese children watch more of their own history and its own country’s animation,” Wen said.

His comments underscore how much of a concern the underperforming toon industry is to the government of a country with 367 million young people under the age of 15.

Statistics from the Ministry of Education show toons are a serious business in China. Two years ago, 1,234 colleges had animation departments, with 466,000 students studying toons and 64,000 graduates who had completed their studies.

The investment in education is paying off.

Last month, the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a report on the industry showing that in 2008, China produced 324 animated skeins, up by 66% over the previous year.

During China’s annual parliament in March, Deputy Culture Minister Ou Yangjian said the local animation industry had grown to more than 5,600 toon shops, employing 200,000 people, producing more than 130,000 minutes of content a year.

But there is a big gap in quality compared to the biz in the U.S., Japan and South Korea, and foreign skeins dominate, says Wang Jianhua, VP of the China Industry-University-Research Institute Collaboration Assn.

This is echoed by Jin Delong, at the powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and TV.

“There is a long way to go before the animation industry prospers. We still have a lot of issues to resolve, for example, encouraging creativity … and combining creativity with the market,” Jin says.

But despite state investment and measures to protect the domestic biz — such as forcing webs to sked “Ultraman,” the hugely popular “SpongeBob SquarePants” and other foreign toons late in the evening — Chinese rugrats are only slowly finding domestic fare they enjoy, such as panda toon “Babo Pan-mily.”

Meanwhile, the boycott of “Ultraman” is being hotly debated by the country’s webizens.

A commentator on blogging site people.com agreed that Wen’s woes were shared by many parents and grandparents — but his solution wouldn’t appeal to the pol.

He added: “I have bought ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘Toy Story’ for my son so that he can boycott ‘Ultraman.’ Some Chinese cartoons are good, but their quality is not very good. Disney cartoons are pretty much excellent.”

Others have taken Wen’s comments as a call-to-arms against Japan, the old foe. Japan occupied China in brutal fashion between 1931 and 1945 and relations are still strained between the two countries.

Collaboration may be a way to get around, if not resolve, some of these tensions.

A joint Chinese-Japanese anime adaptation of the classic historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” was unveiled at the fourth China Cartoon and Animation Festival in the eastern city of Hangzhou last month.

The novel depicts the warring period of 2nd-century China and the political intrigue between different factions. The 52-episode skein will begin broadcasting in China and Japan in June.

Skein is a joint-production by the Beijing Glorious Animation Co., an affiliate of the state-owned CCTV broadcaster, and Japan’s Future Planet.