TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwanese on Sunday (Oct. 24) got a kick out of John Oliver's long-awaited episode on Taiwan, which covered its history, tensions with China, and the point of view of its citizens.
In June, a petition was launched on Change.org to coax Oliver into doing a special episode on Taiwan for his show "Last Week Tonight." Although the petition only gained a modest 1,308 signatures, the comedian was game and responded with a full episode on the subject.
Oliver kicked off the episode by pointing out that Taiwan is the birthplace of bubble tea, mentioning its vast array of city mascots, and touching on the incursions of 149 Chinese warplanes over the course of a weekend. He referred to Taiwan as an "independently operating entity with its own democratically elected leaders, armed forces, and constitution."
The show's host explained that China feels so strongly that Taiwan is part of the communist country that it has been bullying companies such as The Gap and celebrities like John Cena to toe the party line. Oliver found Cena's apology for referring to Taiwan as a country to be "so weird" because he apologized to China, had to do it for calling Taiwan a country, and did it in "pretty decent Mandarin."
Oliver with image of Chinese warplanes. ("Last Week Tonight" screenshot)
Oliver then started off his lesson of 400 years of history by referring to Taiwan as the "Stanley Cup of Asian History" because different countries have been "passing it around and carving their names on it."
He said the last change of hands happened during the Chinese Civil War when "spoiler alert, the communists won. Congratulations to Mao!" After the Nationalists were defeated, over 2 million soldiers and refugees fled to Taiwan, where they set up a "Chinese government in exile," thus creating two Chinese governments.
He pointed out that Western countries at the time were "very invested" in supporting Taiwan as a bulwark against communism. The comedian then took a serious tone when he described the harsh repression in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) rule, including the White Terror period.
Oliver talks about Freddy Lim. ("Last Week Tonight" screenshot)
The repression of the era was highlighted by the case of Bo Yang (柏楊), a cartoonist who was sentenced to nine years in prison for his translation of a Popeye cartoon. He then segued to Taiwan's eventual shift to a "vibrant democracy" by showing scenes of Taiwan legislators wrestling, hurling water balloons, and tossing pig intestines.
The host highlighted the fact that Taiwan was the fastest-growing economy in Asia last year and is a key manufacturer of semiconductors. The humorist cited a Vox article that described the chips as being used in many products from "cars to sex toys."
Oliver mocks epidemiologist Bruce Aylward. ("Last Week Tonight" screenshot)
Oliver touched on the subject of Taiwan sovereignty and the fact that China is forcing companies to remove any reference to Taiwan as a country, with the same notion being applied to the Olympics. He played a 2012 video of Chthonic singer and Legislator Freddy Lim mocking the Olympic team name as "Chinese F***ing Taipei!"
Regarding Taiwan's exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO), Oliver played the infamous video interview with Radio Television Hong Kong journalist Yvonne Tong (唐若韞) in March of last year.
When Tong asked epidemiologist Bruce Aylward about whether the WHO would consider membership for Taiwan, he claimed not to have heard her question. When the journalist tried to repeat the question, the WHO official asked her to "move on to another one."
Oliver talks about President Tsai Ing-wen. ("Last Week Tonight" screenshot)
He mentioned the fact that Taiwan's diplomatic allies have dwindled to 14. The U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity is exemplified by the fact that embassies have to be called institutes and offices, he pointed out.
He joked that the strategic ambiguity is so vague that in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, it's not clear whether the U.S. would send in troops or a U.S. general would "slightly raise an eyebrow." The Taiwan Relations Act was explained as offering weaponry to Taiwan but not providing direct assurance of defense in the event of an attack by China.
Finally, Oliver said the key question is not what other countries think, but "what does (Taiwan) want for itself?" He pointed out that the question is not easy to answer given its different cultures, languages, and political viewpoints, with lawmakers willing to "throw pig intestines at each other" over various issues.
He cited polls as showing that 87% of the population is in favor of keeping the status quo. Oliver then posed the question, "Could it be that maintaining the current deeply weird ambiguous status quo is actually the best option here?"
Oliver confessed that he does not know what the answer is and said, "Frankly, people who are not Taiwanese making decisions for Taiwan is a bit f***ing played out historically."
He suggested that the best solution is to stop talking about Taiwan as if it is some kind of "poker chip" or "island-sized viagra to rejuvenate the Chinese nation" and instead allow the "free democratic society" of 23 million to decide their own future "in any way that they deem fit. Even if that means sporadically beating the absolute s*** out of each other."
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Keelung City Councilor Chang Ji-ho (張之豪) said on his Facebook page Monday (Oct. 25) that Oliver had dedicated nearly 30 minutes to Taiwan and noted that it could have positive ripple effects for the country through the "John Oliver effect." Chang said this was no trivial matter because the show has millions of viewers, affecting public opinion in the U.S., "not just the White House and Congress, but the general population."
Well-known Taiwanese sociology professor Lee Ming-tsung (李明璁) said on Facebook that Oliver's explanation of Taiwan's modern history, from control by the Kuomintang (KMT) to bullying from Beijing, was concise and his comments sharp. Lee found Oliver's introduction of Freddy Lim (林昶佐) and his haircut from 2012 to be especially hilarious.
He wrote that he did not expect that Oliver would convert Lim's words into a sign that read "Chinese F***ing Taipei later," causing him to exclaim "that's crazy!" Lee felt the way that Oliver attacked China was even more "hardcore" than political parties in Taiwan.
Author Joyce Yen (顏擇雅) shared the video on her Facebook page and wrote, "Taiwanese parents will soon play the video to help their children practice English listening comprehension. It is a very influential talk show in the United States."
Podcaster Emily Y. Wu (吳怡慈) on Tuesday wrote on Twitter: "For a decade we've been told 'no one cares.' And yet so many continue to work tirelessly to raise Taiwan's visibility and make our voices heard." She said she was moved to tears by Oliver's coverage of the White Terror era and Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO, and in a second tweet she pointed out that her podcast features the "Chinese F***ing Taipei" metal musician/lawmaker" Freddy Lim.
On his Facebook page, Lim wrote that his friends had told him he appeared on the show and that when he watched it, he realized a segment from his 2012 concert in the U.K. had been broadcast. Lim pointed out how Oliver had used humor to explain Taiwan's situation, the threats it faces from China, its key role in the global economy, and most importantly, that "Taiwan's future must be determined by the Taiwanese themselves."
He said that he often accepts interviews by foreign media but still found it "very weird" to be featured on "Last Week Tonight." Lim thanked everyone for their hard work and for helping Taiwan finally gain more support and recognition, but he admonished children not to "casually use the F Word."