The Uighurs, as Oliver explained, live primarily in the Xinjiang province; they’re culturally and ethnically distinct from most of the rest of China (which is 90% Han Chinese) and tend to be practicing Muslims in a largely secular country. The relationship between the Uighurs and the Chinese government has long been fraught, and it escalated significantly in 2014 when President Xi Jinping instituted a campaign to crack down on violent terrorism that essentially gave the Chinese government carte blanche to surveil and detain Uighurs.
Xinjiang is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world, and Oliver highlighted some of the innocuous activities the Chinese government has deemed indicators of religious extremism to surveil Uighurs. Among them are suddenly quitting smoking and drinking, or buying equipment like dumbbells for no obvious reason. “Although that last one would clearly not be an issue for me,” Oliver cracked while flexing his muscles. “Because I’ve got too pretty obvious reasons for dumbbell ownership right here — it’s not called a workout if you don’t put the work in Broseph Bronrad.”
That ceaseless surveillance also leads to constant arrests, and many Uighurs are thrown into prison-like camps without committing any crimes. The Chinese government has claimed that these are “vocational training facilities” and that they are simply trying to help the Uighurs assimilate into Chinese society, although as Oliver noted, “[A]ssimilation, when forced, is cultural erasure.”
On top of all this, many Uighurs have been taken from their homes and forced to work in factories across China, including those that make products for companies like Nike and Volkswagen. Oliver then played a clip of Volkswagen’s CEO claiming he knew nothing about the treatment of Uighurs in China.
“Wow, finding out that Volkwagen is overlooking a massive human rights crisis is kind of a lot like finding out your grandparents are still having sex,” Oliver cracked. “Sure, it’s completely horrifying, but it really shouldn’t be too shocking. After all, they’ve been doing it since World War II.”
Oliver closed with a call to ensure that the treatment of the Uighurs receives the kind of global attention it deserves. Although he acknowledged the limits of “raising awareness” as a fix-all, he argued that, in this case, it can be wielded to push governments and multi-national corporations to act. “In this instance, awareness is actually a necessary pre-condition for action,” Oliver said. “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.”