John Oliver discusses the human rights abuses the Uighur people are facing at the hands of the Chinese government, and why those atrocities are worth our undivided attention.
China & Uighurs: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 7 Episode 19
Aired on July 26, 2020

Main segment: Xinjiang re-education camps
Other segments:
George Floyd protests in Portland, Oregon

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Hi there. Welcome to the show, still coming to you from this blank void. And before you ask — yes! We have made some changes! The desk is glass now, and, uh, that’s it. That is the full extent of the upgrades. Look, it’s been a busy week, from baseball returning in front of cardboard fans, to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez shredding Ted Yoho on the floor of the house, to Trump bragging about passing a basic cognitive test. Which I will say, in terms of brags, is at least better than “I’ve met Ghislane Maxwell multiple times, and I wish her well.”

But let’s actually start tonight with what’s been happening in Portland. The nature valley granola bar of U.S. cities, in that it’s crunchy, messy, and, let’s be honest, nobody’s first choice. The news this week has been dominated by shocking images from Portland like these.

[CNN Live] The U.S. Attorney now wants an investigation in Portland after videos surfaced showing unidentified camouflaged agents arresting protesters and putting them into unmarked cars. And this disturbing video shows the agents beating a navy veteran with batons and then dousing him with pepper spray when he says that he was trying to engage them in a civil conversation.

Wow, that is intense. And it frankly says so much about this country right now that CNN will show federal agents treat a human being like a pinata, yet censor that same man for rightfully telling those agents to fuck the fuck off. Look, we’re already witnessing the rapid decline of American civil liberties here, let’s try not to be fucking prudes about it.

The protests in Portland have been going on daily for nearly two months now, since the killing of George Floyd. But the deployment of federal agents was a sharp escalation, of questionable legality. And yet, to hear the president tell it, he had no choice, and it was a terrific idea.

[Trump] We’re doing a great job in Portland. Portland was very rough and they called us in, and we did a good job, to put it mildly. Many people in jail right now.

Okay, first: it’s never good when trump says he’s doing a “great job,” given that he thinks his administration is doing a “great job” dealing with the coronavirus, and he once proclaimed “Ben Affleck would do a great job as Batman.” Clearly, this man has no sense of what a great job actually looks like. And for the record, those agents were very much not called in. Oregon‘s governor quickly announced that she didn’t want them there, and that “the federal government should remove them from our streets,” and Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, said pretty much the same.

[Ted Wheeler] What they’re doing is they are sharply escalating the situation. They’re not wanted here. We haven’t asked them here. In fact, we want them to leave.

Yeah, masked individuals throwing people into an unmarked van is never a good idea if you want to de-escalate a situation. It’s not even a good idea for a surprise bachelorette party. “Wow, you got me, I honestly thought I was being kidnapped there for a second. My life flashed before my eyes, and I think I may’ve shit myself, but you girls are the best — bring on the strippers.”

And the reason federal agents were not called in might be that things weren’t actually especially dire in Portland. Protests have been mostly peaceful there. Which is not to say there haven’t been some isolated, chaotic incidents. Although those situations have not been helped by the fact the local police force — under the leadership of Ted Wheeler, incidentally — have routinely overreacted, using things like tear gas, to the point where wheeler actually became known as “tear gas teddy,” which, I can guarantee you, is set to be this Christmas’s worst-selling toy.

And they have justified dangerous crowd-control tactics by releasing photos like this, claiming they’d been attacked with, among other things, a can of white claw and a half-eaten apple. Which is less a threatening display of weaponry and more of a summoning circle for ghosts who died on day three of Burning Man. And for all the talk by Trump and administration officials of the need to restore order in Portland, those on the ground will tell you, it’s not entirely what’s being portrayed.

[HLN] What we’ve noticed is that the volume that is being described by DHS and including administration officials doesn’t seem to square with what’s going on here on the ground. Yeah, you do have rioters, you do have people that are, you know, trying to deface this building, but it’s not as though this is overwhelming chaos. I mean, we’re talking about one city block that’s the epicenter here.

Exactly. It’s about one block that was actually starting to see fewer confrontations between protestors and police before federal agents moved in. Or, if you watch Fox News, it’s the end of America as we know it.

For more than six weeks now, the city of Portland has been under siege by radical leftist mobs who are intent on destroying everything America stands for.

Portland has now experienced 50 straight days of left-wing violence.

We are watching a war on the streets of Portland.

Three federal courthouses have now been damaged on multiple occasions. The Hatfield courthouse was firebombed. The U.S. Custom House was vandalized. Police were attacked with lasers. Several officers now assaulted with sledgehammers. Stores were broken into, buildings were set on fire. This is insane.

Yeah, it is insane, because that tone does not honestly reflect the conditions on the ground. That “firebombing,” for instance, seems to be a reference to either a firework or a small fire that was set, which is significantly less dramatic than he is trying to make it sound. And that rolling list next to Hannity’s head is mostly graffiti. In fact, “graffiti” is listed 12 times in a row there, under the headline “violence in Portland,” which is a huge overstatement. And at that point, it would have been just as accurate if that heading had said “cannibalism in Portland,” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacres in Portland” or “9/11s in Portland.”

Look, the troubling thing here is, Portland seems to be being used as a staging ground by the president to put on an authoritarian show of force. And this could end very badly, especially as he’s now apparently threatening to use federal force in other cities as well, which is absolutely outrageous. And if you, like Trump, think that it is fine to use federal troops as a prop to crush the constitutional right to assemble, then, like a great American, I’d like to offer you a basic cognitive test, which is: how many fingers am I holding up? And now this.

♪ ♪

Announcer: and now… Martha Stewart loosens up during the lockdown.

[Martha Stewart] I have three people staying with me during this time. I have basically locked them in my house. The card games get really lively after dinner number 53 tonight.

[Martha Stewart] Forgot to get vanilla, so I’m gonna use my favorite other flavoring, which is brandy.

[Martha Stewart] Tequila blanco, and then frozen vodka, just enough to give you a little buzz.

[Martha Stewart] I just keep a saucer of salt handy whenever I want to have a margarita. Or a martha-rita.

[Martha Stewart] Using my favorite rolling pin. Which I got in Paris on my honeymoon, the only good thing about my honeymoon is this rolling pin. Wine, gin. Wine, gin. Gin, gin, gin, gin. And the rest of the beer.

♪ ♪

Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns eyelashes. Among other things, the reason camels are so sexy. Without those luscious lashes, they’d just be lumpy horses with furry back boobs. But then you see those eyes and you remember, “oh, yeah. I’d totally fuck a camel.” And yeah, we’re going to talk about eyelashes. Look, it’s the summer, there’s a pandemic raging, and frankly, I think we’ve all earned a deep dive on how best to make your eyelashes pop. And to that end, there’s a TikTok makup tutorial I’d like you to take a look at.

Hi, guys, I’m going to teach you guys how to get long lashes. So the first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler, curl your lashes obviously, then you’re gonna put them down and use your phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China, how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating their families from each other —

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on, hold on! That took quite a turn. She went from promising longer lashes to discussing concentration camps in just 12 seconds, and that’s genuinely impressive! And look, I’m a bit of an expert at taking something fun and quickly ruining it, so this is game recognizing game here. But she is right. A lash curler is a vital tool in anyone’s beauty arsenal, and there’s an ethnic group in China being systematically surveilled and imprisoned in an attempt to, essentially, wipe their culture off the map. And you know what? Let’s hold the eyelash story for another week, and instead, let’s talk about this. Because the people in question are the Uighurs. They’re a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in a region of China called Xinjiang, and the Chinese government has been treating them absolutely terribly.

[“Four Corners: Tell the World” (2019), ABC Australia] A U.N. Panel says the region resembles a massive internment camp, where more than 1 million Muslim minorities have been rounded up, detained, and forcibly indoctrinated by the Chinese regime. Witness accounts, satellite imagery, and communist party documents reveal what appears to be the largest imprisonment of people on the basis of their religion since the holocaust.

Wow. Saying anything is the largest “since the holocaust” automatically makes whatever you’ve just said worse. The largest collection of shoes? Fun! The largest collection of shoes since the holocaust? Oh, boy. All of a sudden, really, really not fun.

And if this is the first time that you’re hearing about an estimated million people who’ve been held in detention camps — mostly Uighurs, but also Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities — you are not alone. And it’s probably because China has done its level best to keep this story from getting out, but it may be getting harder to ignore. Just this week, we learned that you may actually have a personal connection to this without even knowing it. Because it turns out, Uighurs are being shipped — not always willingly — to work in factories across China. And some of the products they’re making may be right in front of your face.

[The New York Times] If you are one of the millions of people around the world wearing a face mask because of the coronavirus pandemic, this footage may concern you. It shows a group of Uighurs arriving at a textile company that started producing masks in response to the pandemic. We identified several Chinese companies that use Uighur labor to produce PPE. And we tracked some of their shipments to consumers in the U.S. and around the world.

Yeah, it’s true. The very masks that some in this country see as unacceptable infringements on their personal liberty may be getting made by people who would absolutely love for their worst infringement to be getting politely asked to leave a fucking Costco.

And while there is clearly nothing new about horrific practices being hidden deep in the supply chain of global capitalism, what is happening to the Uighurs is particularly appalling. So tonight, let’s talk about them — who they are, what’s been happening to them, and why. And let’s start with a bit of context. About 11 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, in the far northwest corner of China. It’s resource-rich and it’s strategically important. But Uighurs have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the authorities in Beijing, they have their own language, and are culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Chinese population, which is more than 90% Han Chinese. On top of which, there’s the fact Uighurs are Muslim in a country that is aggressively secular. So much so that a few years ago, a Chinese reality show went to Dubai, and state TV censored all depictions of a woman in a headscarf in the weirdest possible way, covering it with a cartoon helmet and a shock of yellow hair with a ghost in it, and covering her hijab by obscuring her completely with a cactus in a Santa hat, even doing that when she was reflected in another person’s sunglasses. And look, setting aside the issue of religious freedom for a second, that’s an amazing way to censor someone out of a TV show. I’m just saying, watching old episodes of “house of cards” would be much less uncomfortable if it looked like this instead.

[Clip from “House of Cards” (2017), Netflix]
Why’d you ask him to leave?
Because I just wanted to look in your eyes one more time before we do this.
Francis, we’re doing this.

See? That’s just objectively much better! And now you can enjoy House of Cards just as much as you used to, which was a bit.

So there was that baseline difference there, on top of which, Han Chinese have held bigoted views about the Uighurs. Just listen to this interview from back in 2008.

[“Xinjiang Man” (2008), Alison Satake] Here in Beijing, Uighurs are dispersed across the city. Many work at restaurants and street stalls. They stand out because of their different features and dress. Some Han Chinese are blatantly prejudiced against them.

The people from Xinjiang are not very good. Robbers and thieves.

Wow. “Robbers and thieves.” That is not an acceptable way to describe an entire ethnic group. It’s barely an acceptable way to describe all raccoons. I mean, yeah, they are essentially just kleptomaniac possums who steal your trash with their spooky little doll hands. But that’s not all they are. And all of this was exacerbated by the Chinese government encouraging Han people to migrate to Xinjiang, with them often being favored over Uighurs for top jobs. And these tensions and resentments have made an overall atmosphere of extreme discrimination finally boiled over in 2009 with riots in the capital that killed 200 people, mostly Han Chinese. But rather than address the complex underlying factors behind those riots, the Chinese government simply painted them as religious terrorism, beginning a decade-long crackdown that’s escalated steadily — especially after China’s president, Xi Jinping, came to power, and instituted what was called the “strike hard” campaign against violent terrorism in 2014. Think of it as the Patriot Act on steroids, because all of a sudden, Uighurs started being treated like they were all potential terrorists. In fact, Xinjiang is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world, with the authorities surveilling things that most people would find utterly meaningless.

[“Panorama: How to Brainwash a Million People” (2019), BBC] If you go through Uighur neighborhoods or suburbs, you see cameras over literally every house entrance so the government can see who enters and who leaves.

How low is the bar for being highlighted by the system?

Are you socializing more or less with your neighbors? Have you put gas in somebody else’s car? Are you going out the front door of your house instead of the back door of your house? That’s how low the bar is.

Oh, it goes even further. The government has a list of “75 behavioral indications of religious extremism.” With some as vague as “people who store large amounts of food,” “those who smoke and drink but quit doing so quite suddenly,” and “those who buy or store equipment such as dumbbells without obvious reasons.” Although that last one clearly would not be an issue for me, cause I got two pretty obvious reasons for dumbbell ownership right here. It’s not called a workout if you don’t put the work in, broseph braun-rad. Trust me, they call me the lunch lady, because from the hours of 11:00 to 1:00, I don’t stop stacking plates. I call this one Jon and this one Taffer, because together, they lift up bars.

But look, China doesn’t just collect this information, it feeds it into a “predictive policing” system that monitors for potential threats. In one week, it flagged the names of 24,000 people as suspicious, 15,000 of whom were then sent to reeducation camps. And when pressed on whether any of this is strictly necessary, Chinese officials will argue they’re simply being proactive.

[CBSN, 2019] Some people, before they commit murder, already show they’re capable of it. Should we wait for them to commit a crime or prevent it from happening?

Okay, that is both insane logic, and also the exact plot of Minority Report, which, if you haven’t seen it, very briefly: the year’s 2054, tom cruise’s John Anderton is chief of Washington D.C.’S pre-crime police department where murders are stopped before they happen. Now ethically, there are some questions about the system — for instance, can you really be sure an individual will commit the crimes the precogs say they’ll commit? Oh, yeah — the precogs. They are bald freaks who sleep in an indoor swimming pool and they scream when they visualize a future murder. I think they’re all siblings? Or aliens? Or babies? I can’t remember. But basically, the murder rate in the city is zero, Anderton’s doing well, and so the status quo remains. One day, the precogs generate a prediction: John Anderton will murder a man he doesn’t even know in just 36 hours. But it couldn’t be! That’s our hero, isn’t it? So he stages an escape, gets an eye transplant so he can’t be detected by the city’s eye-based surveillance system, finds out he’s being framed, then finds out that Max Von Sydow — oh yeah, by the way, he’s in this, too — is going to kill Anderton, but decides not to, and Anderton doesn’t kill the person he was supposedly going to, disproving the very basis of the pre-crime system and proving that people do! Have! Free! Choice! So, in the end, they shut down the program and send the precogs away to live on a farm, but not the death kind, we assume. Anyway, it’s scary, but it’s pretty good. I’d say three stars. But the bigger point is: people in Xinjiang have been arrested and thrown in camps despite having committed no crimes, which is chilling. A million Uighurs were, at one point, being held extrajudicially — many for acts as innocuous as growing a beard, fasting, or applying for a passport. And this is a very sore subject for the Chinese government, which initially denied the existence of the camps at all, before shifting to arguing that they’re merely vocational training facilities. Although even the heavily-orchestrated media tours suggest their primary purpose might be something else.

[CNN Live, 2019] Authorities recently took some diplomats and journalists on a carefully supervised tour of some of these facilities. Some detainees told journalists the camps reeducate them.

All of us found that we have something wrong with ourselves. And luckily enough, the communist party and the government offer this kind of school to us for free.

If you’re happy and you know it, say “yes, sir!” If you’re happy and you know it, say “yes, sir!” “Yes, sir!”

Holy shit. That might be the single creepiest sing-a-long I’ve ever heard that doesn’t involve Barney, a dinosaur who’s clearly aware of clothing — he’s wearing a hat — and yet still actively chooses to go bottomless around children. You’re an absolute monster.

And for all the Chinese government’s talk of “vocational training,” these camps sure seem prison-like. Leaked classified documents have shown that staff at these facilities were told to prevent students from freely contacting the outside world, and that they should “strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes.” And the phrase “prevent escapes” is something of a tell there. If your employee handbook says “prevent escape,” you’re probably working at a prison, or at the very least, a Scientology picnic. “Hey, we’re just here to grill some dogs, play some tunes, and if anyone asks where Shelly is, do not let them escape.” And look, if that weren’t enough to make it clear what these camps really are, just listen to one former detainee describe what she went through.

[“Panorama: How to Brainwash a Million People” (2019), BBC] Each woman gets two minutes to go to the toilet. They tell you to be “quick, quick, quick.” If you’re not quick enough, they shock you with an electric baton on the back of your head. It really hurt. And they did it a lot. Even after being shocked, we had to say, “thank you, teacher. We will not be late next time.”

That is clearly absolutely appalling. I didn’t think people had to publicly thank abusers anymore now that Harvey Weinstein doesn’t go to award shows. And I’m not even getting into the reports of forced abortions and sterilizations of Uighur women, which are absolutely horrific. And China will argue that this is all about economic opportunity and attempting to assimilate a historically ostracized minority. But assimilation, when forced, is cultural erasure. Because in addition to using mass detention to keep families apart, there are also rules that seem to be trying to break the chain by which families hand down a culture and faith across generations — from laws preventing kids from going to mosques, to a ban on baby names that are considered too Islamic to the creation of state-run boarding schools for Uighur children.

Other moves by China have been even more on-the-nose, like the destruction of Uighur cemeteries. The government actually turned an enormous graveyard where a prominent Uighur poet was buried into something called “happiness park,” complete with fake pandas, children’s rides, and a man-made lake. And look, I’m not saying this is the most important thing, but this is one of the pandas in question. And frankly, I have never had more questions. Why is he holding a lollipop? Why does he have the posture of a startled gopher? Why does he have an expression that screams, “I just had a lobotomy, but it turns out, I’m both happy about it, and surprisingly horny?” Frustratingly, we may never know the answers!

Now, thankfully, as criticism of China’s camps has intensified in recent years, the government seems to be closing some of them. Unfortunately, though, they seem to have shifted to staging sham trials and transferring many Uighurs to prisons that aren’t even pretending to be “training centers” anymore. China’s also created a system of mass labor transfers that sends Uighurs and other ethnic minorities into factory and service jobs, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles from home. That is how those masks that we mentioned at the start of this piece are getting made. And Chinese state media presents this as a positive, showing Uighur workers arriving at a train station, then being taken on a bus to their new accommodations, all with upbeat narration like this.

[CCTV] Up to now, Xinjiang has organized transfers for around 178,000 workers, providing them a stable employment rate of over 92%.

Yeah, you can’t celebrate a stable workforce when it is forced labor anymore than you can give me credit for “spending a lot of time with my kids over the past few months.” Believe me, if I had any other choice, I wouldn’t be. Because, as you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t just a benevolent jobs program. The idea, as one local government report put it, is that sending Uighurs far from home will allow for “distancing them from religiously extreme views and educating them.” And a lot of people have been distanced. One Australian think tank that investigated forced labor estimated that, conservatively, over just a two-year period, “more than 80,000 Uighurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China.” They also found over 80 companies directly or indirectly benefiting from Uighur labor in their supply chains, some of them big international brands like Nike. When The Washington Post visited the factory of one of Nike’s suppliers, it found Uighur workers were forced to attend patriotic education and mandarin classes and live in dormitories under constant supervision, with one worker saying, “we can walk around, but we can’t go back to Xinjiang on our own.” Nike has claimed that this factory no longer employees Uighur workers and they told us that they take any reports about forced labor seriously and that they’re “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China.” Which, given what “the post” found, feels like their policy on oversight is less “just do it” than “just talk about doing it and hope people eventually stop asking.”

And look, it’s not just Nike. Another company on the list is Volkswagen, which told us they found “no indications” of forced labor in their supply chain, though it is worth noting that last year, their CEO was challenged about whether China’s treatment of the Uighurs gave him pause, and this was his response.

[BBC, 2019]

[Herbert Diess, Volkswagen CEO] I’m — we are absolutely proud to also create workplaces in that region, which we think is very useful.

[Interviewer] But Xinjiang is something you’re not proud to be associated with in terms of what the Chinese government is doing to Uighur people and —

[Diess] I can’t judge this, sorry.

[Interviewer] You can’t judge it?

[Diess] No.

[Interviewer] But you know about it?

[Diess] I don’t know what — what you’re referring to.

[Interviewer] You don’t know about China’s re-education camps for a million Uighur people, that is, it has referred to as re-education camps as part of his counter-terror threat in the west of his country, you don’t know about that?

[Diess] I’m not aware of that.

Wow. Finding out that Volkswagen is overlooking a massive human rights crisis is a lot like finding out that your grandparents are still having sex: sure, it’s horrifying, but it really shouldn’t be too shocking, after all, they’ve been doing it since World War II!

And look, I can understand why companies — and others — might want to turn away from what’s going on in Xinjiang, because it’s harrowing. Remember that woman who got electric shocks for taking too long in the bathroom? She was in two different camps, then was transferred into forced labor at a glove factory, all while separated from her family for two years. And while they were eventually reunited, they’re understandably still haunted to this day.

[ABC Nightline, 2019]

For two years, you didn’t see your mom?

I missed my mommy. Don’t cry, mommy. Please don’t cry. Don’t cry, mommy. I told you not to show your tears.

That is heartbreaking and completely indefensible. And whenever pressed, the Chinese government has been quick to use whataboutism. They responded to U.S. criticism by invoking atrocities ranging from the genocide of native Americans to a statement that read “George Floyd’s death shows that U.S. Systemic racism has choked ethnic minorities so hard that they “can’t breathe.” And look, those are fair hits, those are fair points right there, but it’s also completely possible for two things to be wrong at the same time. And I know the U.S.-China relationship is complicated — particularly right now — and too often, it descends into reductive, xenophobic us versus them stereotypes. But human rights should be completely non-negotiable.

And I will say, the U.S. has taken some small steps here, like imposing sanctions against top Chinese officials, and Congress even passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act earlier this year. But although Trump signed it, he also reportedly told Xi Jinping that he should go ahead with building the camps, because he thought it was “exactly the right thing to do.” Which, from a foreign policy perspective, a human rights perspective, a political perspective, and even an interpersonal perspective, is exactly the wrong fucking thing to do.

But look, this clearly isn’t just about trump. Is it? Going forward, the entire global community needs to do more. The U.N. should have independent investigators looking into what china has done in Xinjiang. Governments around the world speaking out about the treatment of Uighurs without bending to Chinese economic influence. And big multinational companies, like Nike and VW, should not only be working to clean up their supply chains, but also actively using their financial leverage to pressure the Chinese government to end these abuses, but none of that’s going to happen unless people pay attention.

And look, I know that “raising awareness” is often a bullshit solution that doesn’t really solve a problem. But there can be a real benefit to awareness, even if it’s coming through a TikTok makeup tutorial, or, let’s say, the exact opposite of one. Because in this instance, awareness is actually a necessary precondition for action. And I know there’s a lot to worry about right now, from a raging pandemic to an ugly presidential election, to a purple pervert who couldn’t give a fuck about pants. But we have to make sure that the treatment of Uighurs is also on that list. Because when you’re dealing with a concerted campaign centered on cultural erasure, one of the most important things we can do is continue to pay attention, at the very least so that if an entire culture is replaced by a horny lobotomized panda, we’ll know to stand up and fucking say something. And now, this.

♪ ♪

Announcer: and now… We promise you these people are not saying “masturbate.”

This morning, as Covid cases mount across the country, the mass debate is intensifying.

People are very heated up about the mask debate. To speak of the president is trying to have us cover the mask debate.

Cvs, target, getting in on the mask debate.

Mask debate taking center stage.

9 Minutes after 6:00, new videos of raging mask debate.

The mask debate and Georgia is getting ugly.

The mask debate in West Virginia might be coming to an end.

This mask debate is not over.

Harmony mask debates have you gotten over?

The mask debate.

He found himself in the middle of a mask debate.

Deeper into the pet store mask debate.

We will begin with this thing we are calling the great mask debate.

That is our show. Thank you so much for watching. See you next week. Good night!

Come on, China. Come on. Get that cactus off of me, China. We are just trying to do credits. Please! Please– why is he wearing a Santa hat and a scarf? Do cactuses get fucking cold? China, please! Pleeease!



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