Being a cheeky Brit with a TV show and a set of brass, Emmy-winning balls, John Oliver isn’t afraid to take on pretty much anyone on Last Week Tonight. Litigious coal barons, fraudulent evangelical tax cheats, Scientology (“Where’s Shelly?,” Oliver taunted leader David Miscavige during tonight’s show), the occasional seditious would-be American dictator, even his own “business daddy,” AT&T (who Oliver excoriated on-air for funding right-wing nutjob network OANN)—nobody’s safe from being humorously pilloried on HBO’s airwaves by that guy who played Vanity Smurf a couple of times. And, as of Sunday, the list of powerful targets Oliver has willfully enraged includes, as he put it, “nuclear-armed, saber-rattling superpower,” The People’s Republic Of China.
Now, nobody’s claiming that a 20-minute late-night pay cable segment about China’s increasing escalation of its contentious and contested claim over The Republic Of China (aka Taiwan) is going to cause Chinese leader Xi Jinping the slightest discomfort. On the other hand, as Oliver showed, China, historically, has gotten pretty intense whenever anybody so much as suggests that the island nation of Taiwan is, you know, a separate nation. Oliver showed how big businesses have rushed to apologize whenever one of its underlings accidentally referred to the independent Taiwan (with its 23 million citizens) as independent. High profile examples there include American movie companies CGI-wiping the Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise’s Top Gun sequel cool-guy bomber jacket, and that time John Cena was forced to speed-learn Mandarin in order to produce an apology video to China so that F9 wouldn’t lose out on its lucrative Chinese box office.
But, as Oliver noted in a history-heavy segment, Taiwan’s troubles go well beyond mandatorily contrite former wrestlers, as China’s current posture of deliberately reminding its much smaller neighbor just who’s got the nukes has turned up the heat of late. Oliver, while noting that “people who are not Taiwanese making decisions for Taiwan is a bit fucking played out” historically, still laid bare the often farcical lengths the rest of the world goes to to not piss China off. There’s the fact that Taiwan’s participation in the Olympics involves competing under a made-up flag for the nonexistent nation of “Chinese Taipei,” something derided in typically metal style by one Freddy Lim, lead singer (and current Taiwanese legislator) of the Taiwanese death metal band Chthonic. Oliver also made merry sport of a World Health Organization official shown faking technical problems in order to not answer a reporter’s question differentiating between Chinese and Taiwanese responses to COVID.
And then there’s the long-standing fact of America’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwanese independence. Independence (even of the “don’t rock the boat” variety) is, as Oliver notes, something overwhelmingly favored by the Taiwanese people, even in the notoriously contentious (as in occasional fistfights and pig intestine-tossing brawls) Taiwanese parliament. Basically, the world’s posture toward this whole, long-simmering diplomatic mess is to just stick its hands in its pockets and whistle, hoping that China’s current ramp-up of tensions doesn’t boil over into something anyone has to deal with. (Oliver notes how the United States’ carefully worded non-engagement hasn’t kept American companies from making serious bank by selling weapons to Taiwan.) In throwing up his hands at the current standoff, Oliver could only point out the absurd little dance Western nations are doing over the issue, while describing the already fraught situation as dangerously “fraughter,” which, in appropriately vague terms, may or may not be an actual word.