John Oliver talks the rise of China on Last Week Tonight


On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains just why we need to learn more about China and its president, the powerful Xi Jinping.

How much do you really know about China? Yes, practically all of us know that China is one of the largest nations in the world, both by pure landmass and population. You also likely know that it has a deep history. But what do you know about its current political state? And how does the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping interact with and shape the future of the entire world?

Well, you probably know most of that as long as you’re not U.S. President Donald Trump. As shown on Last Week Tonight, he doesn’t appear to have the most solid understanding of China as an international force. To be fair, though, a lot of us probably don’t know very much about China. For most of China’s history, its leaders have been just fine with that. Flying under the radar has done quite a lot for a huge nation with a powerhouse economy.

Recently, however, things have changed. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that “China needs to learn more about the world. The world needs to learn more about China”.

So, what does this new emergence mean for China and the rest of the world? According to John Oliver, this means that we should talk about the major changes in China, on its own terms. And those changes are pretty serious, from rapid cultural shifts to huge political moves like the recent abolition of term limits for China’s president. Yes, current President Xi Jinping is potentially setting himself up to be president for life.

Furthermore, last October, Xi Jinping’s doctrine (“Xi Jinping Thought”) was cemented into the Chinese constitution. Imagine if a current U.S. President was able to enshrine his own thoughts into the U.S. Constitution, now and forever.

Uncle Xi

Xi Jinping has purposely built a cult of personality, much of it based around a friendly image of him as an uncle or father. His story also conveniently echoes much of China’s larger history, from his beginnings as a well-off young man, to his family’s fall from grace, to his own time working on a farm during the Cultural Revolution.

However, “Xi’s branding isn’t confined to tourist attractions”, said Oliver. State media has helped him out immensely, from references to “Xi Dada” (essentially, “Uncle Xi”) to a folksy visit to a restaurant where he chowed down on pork dumplings.

It’s not all marketing, though. Xi has also benefited from a massive economic upswing to the tune of a staggering 10 percent rise per year. That makes everyone quite happy with the current government.

Xi isn’t prepared to stop there, however. He has helped to steer a few significant international projects, designed to improve China’s standing worldwide and to gain a foothold beyond its borders.

The first is China’s “Belt and Road initiative”, which is so large that it’s sometimes hard to comprehend. Essentially, China is throwing over $1 trillion into infrastructure in over 60 countries. The idea is that it will shape global trade with China at the center of the whole system. It’s too early to tell whether or not the Belt and Road move will work out, but even the audacity and planning involved tells you something about the ambitions of Xi’s government.


Let’s look at the second initiative: Xi’s crackdown on internal corruption within Chinese politics. That’s been celebrated by many, naturally enough. After all, who doesn’t want to celebrate the removal of corrupt politicians?

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. “So far,” said Oliver, “Everything I’ve shown you is what ‘Xi Dada’ wants you to know about China.”

It follows, then, that there is a certain narrative being built by all of these efforts. Once you start to look closer (if you can, that is), things become quite a bit more complicated and often ominous.

Funny, isn’t it, that Xi’s political rivals were included in the corruption purge? And don’t forget that he got rid of term limits, which were meant to prevent the disastrous reign of another tyrant like the complicated figure of Mao Zedong. For example, Mao’s Great Leap Forward program lead to an estimated 45 million people dying, mostly via famine. The Cultural Revolution killed at least another million more, according to various estimates.

Xi’s moves to get rid of those restrictions is worrisome, to say the least. His reaction to dissent is also highly concerning. Under his direction, internet censors temporarily removed references to empires, phrases like “personality cult”, and Winnie the Pooh. Yes, commentators have been comparing Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh, a likeness that apparently really gets under the Chinese President’s skin. Enough so that he’s justified banning said references from Chinese internet platforms.

Yes, Winnie the Pooh is an issue

That Winnie the Pooh thing has grabbed the attention of many commentators, Oliver included. “That fact that he’s annoyed about it means that people will never stop bringing it up,” he said. “It suggests a weird insecurity in him.”

Xi is also reportedly worried about public opinion turning against him. Some predict that the Chinese economy cannot possibly continue its massive growth rate. Could Xi’s public acclaim swing around and bite him? He could easily be haunted by historical specters, like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the incredibly tumultuous Arab Spring.

Social control, then, is vital to maintaining both image and government. To that end, Chinese citizens are reportedly being assigned a “social credit score”, which sounds like it’s straight out of Black Mirror. Things like volunteering and buying Chinese products raise one’s score. Tax evasion and smoking in non-smoking areas can lower said score. If someone’s score is too low, they may be unable to buy train and plane tickets, real estate, and high-speed internet.

It doesn’t stop here, however. Xi has also denied human rights, to the extent that Tiananmen Square seems small in comparison. Religious freedoms appear to be under attack, including surveillance of minority Uighur Muslims and push back against Christian iconography. If someone is placed on an “unsafe” list, they can be placed in “re-education camps” meant to reshape their entire beliefs and being.

Liu Xiaobo

Need an illustration? Look to the story of Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Chinese dissident who died last year. He was imprisoned in 2009, sentenced to 11 years for attempting to overthrow the Chinese government. He died of liver cancer, which some allege spread after Chinese authorities delayed proper treatment. After Liu’s passing, online searches for his name were blocked, as well as news services mentioning him. Even candle emojis were banned on certain social media sites, for fear that they would be used to memorialize Liu.

Overall, China is becoming more and more authoritarian as its power is growing larger on the world stage. Criticism is becoming routinely silenced, perhaps when it is most needed. After all, China can turn around and dangle its economic power over other nations’ heads.

Next: John Oliver revisits Stupid Watergate and Mueller

America, therefore, needs to be strategic when it comes to dealing with China. Too bad Donald Trump is President of the United States.

Trump’s ability to gloss over human rights abuses and inability to actually, you know, lead on an international stage, is potentially disastrous. He’s leaving a great, big power vacuum for the rising nation of China.