John Oliver blames China for your lack of knowledge about Uighur concentration camps

John Oliver on China's Uighur abuses
(Image credit: Screenshot/YouTube/Last Week Tonight)

John Oliver said Sunday's Last Week Tonight was going to be about eyelashes, and that was mostly just to set up a TikTok video. Its creator "is right," he said: "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." Oliver started with the basics: "The people in question are the Uighurs. They're mostly a mostly Muslim minority in a region of China called Xinjiang, and the Chinese government has been treating them absolutely terribly."

"If this is the first time 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," Oliver said. "And it's probably because China has done its level best to keep this story from getting out." That may be harder now, because some of the face masks and other PPE used in America is likely made by forced Uighur labor, making us complicit, he added. "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?"

Oliver ran though a bit of the historical enmity between Uighurs and Beijing, the 2009 riots, and China's crackdown with President Xi Jinping's 2014 Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism law — "think of it as the Patriot Act on steroids" — and current Minority Report-like pre-emptive arrests and Chinese excuses: They are "simply being proactive" and sending them to helpful "vocational training facilities," among other euphemisms for "cultural erasure."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"Whenever pressed on this, the Chinese government has been quick to use whataboutism," Oliver said. "They responded to U.S. criticism by invoking atrocities ranging from he genocide of Native Americans to George Floyd's death." Those "are fair hits, those are fair points right there," he said, "but it's also completely possible for two things to be wrong at the same time." What can you do? Pay attention, he said. Watch below. Peter Weber

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.