John Oliver explains China's 'appalling' treatment of Uighurs

The Last Week Tonight host called for action in response to Beijing’s human rights abuses against its Muslim Uighur minority

John Oliver returned to Last Week Tonight on Sunday with a segment demanding attention be paid to China’s persecution and forced detention of the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority from the country’s north-west Xinjiang region, over a million of whom have been detained by the Chinese government in re-education camps.

“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,” said Oliver. “And it’s probably because China has done its level best to keep this story from getting out.”

Still, reports from earlier this month revealed that many Uighurs have been forcibly shipped to work in factories across China producing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks in response to the pandemic in the US. In other words, “the very masks that some in this country see as unacceptable infringement 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,” said Oliver.

And while there is “clearly nothing new about horrific practices being hidden deep within the supply chain of global capitalism”, Oliver continued, “what is happening to the Uighurs is particularly appalling”.

Systemic government suppression of the Uighurs – who number about 11 million in Xinjiang and are culturally, linguistically and ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese who comprise 90% of the country’s population – builds on decades of discrimination by the communist regime based in Beijing. The Chinese government has exacerbated longstanding prejudice by some Han Chinese against Uighurs, largely based on the Uighurs’ Muslim faith in an aggressively secular country, by encouraging Han migration to Xinjiang.

The prejudice, tension and extreme discrimination boiled over into riots in Xinjiang’s capital in 2009, which killed more than 200 Han Chinese and spurred a decade-long crackdown by the central government; in 2014, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, instituted the “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism”, which was “basically the Patriot Act on steroids”, said Oliver. “All of a sudden, Uighurs started being treated like they were all potential terrorists.”

Xinjiang is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world, with authorities “surveilling things that most people would find utterly meaningless”, said Oliver, such as growing a beard or applying for a passport. Flagged individuals are entered into a predictive policing system which, according to one 2019 data leak, sent 15,000 Uighurs to “brainwashing camps” during just one week in 2017.

The crackdown is a “sore subject” for the Chinese government, Oliver continued, which initially denied the existence of the camps and then downplayed them as “vocational” facilities. But even strictly supervised state tours barely concealed their true role as Uighur prisons, as evidenced by leaked official documents encouraging staff to “strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes”.

“The phrase ‘prevent escapes’ is something of a tell there,” said Oliver. “If your employee handbook says ‘prevent escape’, you’re probably working at a prison or at the very least, a Scientology picnic.”

During the pandemic, the government has escalated the existing work-transfer deportation of Uighurs out of Xinjiang, and “as you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t a benevolent jobs program”, Oliver said. “The idea, as one local government report put it, is that sending Uighurs far from home will allow ‘distancing them from religiously extreme views and educating them’,” by sending a conservatively estimated 80,000 Uighurs to factories benefiting such multinational companies as Nike over a two-year period.

When contacted by Last Week Tonight, Nike said the factory no long employed Uighur workers and company representatives “are conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China”. Which “feels like their policy on oversight is less ‘just do it’, and more ‘just talk about doing it and hope people eventually stop asking’”, Oliver retorted.

More broadly, “going forward, the entire global community needs to do more”, Oliver concluded, calling for the UN to appoint independent investigators to look into China’s abuses in Xinjiang, governments to speak out “without bending to China’s economic influence”, and companies such as Nike to clean up their supply chains while “actively using their financial leverage to pressure the Chinese government to end these abuses”.

But none of this will occur, he argued, without a redirection of individual attention. “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 is coming through a TikTok makeup tutorial or,” he added, pointing to himself, “the exact opposite of one.

“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.”


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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