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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver breaks from tracing the rise of American authoritarianism to talk China on Last Week Tonight

Illustration for article titled John Oliver breaks from tracing the rise of American authoritarianism to talk China on Last Week Tonight
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

After an opening segment outlining the fact that the American government is seizing thousands of children and putting them in fucking cages, John Oliver spent most of Sunday’s Last Week Tonight talking about China. You know, that faraway country with an ruler whose fragile ego, paranoia, authoritarian bent, and contempt for human rights has thrown his country into turmoil. So nice to take a break from talking Trump all the time, one supposes.

Anyway, Oliver did his signature comic dissection of the increasingly dictatorial rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping, alternating meticulously researched facts about, say, the vindictive, depressingly predictable, torture-filled truth behind that leader’s “get tough on government corruption/drain the swamp” crackdown, and allusive rants about topics like Disneyland (and leaning into his own resemblance to a particular Disney character). Oliver’s remains a particularly potent comic strategy, working up viewers with frightening, often ludicrous details of, in this case, China’s draconian censorship policies (especially regarding another, Disney-owned character whose resemblance to the president reportedly sends the fragile strongman into a tizzy), then smacking them with an analogy only marginally more ridiculous.


And there’s plenty to spout exaggerated Britishisms about, as Oliver talked about China’s renewed persecution of various religions, Xi Jinping’s recent removal of term limits for himself, the country’s ambitious plans to leverage its economic power around the world, and that “social credit score” plan that is literally the plot of that one Black Mirror episode. And while Oliver introduced the piece with the plan to educate about China on its own terms, he finished up by illustrating how the current person in the White House is not exactly the learned, shrewd, or inclined enough to counter China’s growing influence. Showing a clip of Trump praising Xi Jinping as “a very special person” on the same day Nobel Prize-winning Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo died after years spent being “reeducated” about daring to speak out about censorship, human rights, and the like. Still, Oliver could only marvel at Liu Xiaobo’s final, glorious act of trolling defiance, as one of the last pictures of him before his 2017 death sees him raising a toast—in a mug emblazoned with that certain Disney-owned character.

Oh, and lest all this would lead you to believe that only Chinese authoritarianism and human rights violations were all that were on his mind, it should be restated that Oliver started off his show by noting that the American government is ripping thousands of non-white children from their parents and keeping them in fucking cages.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.