Taipei, Taiwan – A fatal shooting at a Taiwanese-American church in southern California, which authorities said was motivated by the gunman’s hatred for Taiwan, has left residents of the self-governed island stunned.
Identified as David Chou, the suspected assailant has been described by authorities as a US citizen of Chinese descent who was motivated by “political tensions involving China and Taiwan”.
On Tuesday, prosecutors charged Chou with one count of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder. The FBI has opened a federal hate crime inquiry after investigators found notes in the 68-year-old’s car indicating an obsession with Taiwan and a dislike of its citizens.
Police did not elaborate further, but a neighbour told The Associated Press that Chou’s wife had divorced him and sold a small Las Vegas apartment building the couple owned before returning to Taiwan last year.
On Sunday afternoon, Chou opened fire at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in the city of Laguna Woods, killing 52-year-old physician John Cheng and wounding five more before he was subdued by congregants.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday expressed her “sincere condolences” to the family of Cheng, a Taiwanese-born American, adding on Twitter that “violence is never the answer”.
I want to convey my sincere condolences on the death of Dr. John Cheng & my hopes for a prompt recovery for those injured in the shooting at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California. Violence is never the answer.
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) May 17, 2022
The killing was condemned by Taiwan’s two main political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party and the Kuomintang, as well as its unofficial ambassador to the US, Bi-khim Hsiao.
Hsiao said she was “shocked and saddened” by the events and wished for a speedy recovery for the victims.
But despite Chou’s alleged dislike for Taiwan and Taiwanese people, by contemporary measures, he was also Taiwanese himself, according to government media citing Taipei’s representative to Los Angeles.
From emigre to Taiwanese
Chou was born in Taiwan in the 1950s, and was probably brought up believing he was Chinese.
This identity would have been listed as such on his birth certificate issued by the Republic of China – Taiwan’s formal name – which is why the US law enforcement may have erroneously described him as “Chinese”.
It is unclear when Chou left Taiwan for the US and if he identifies as “Chinese” but it would not be unusual for diaspora of his background and generation. Taiwanese media referred to him as a “second-generation waishengren”, whose family would have fled the Communist takeover of China sometime between 1945 and 1949.
The Republic of China government began to consolidate its position in Taiwan when Japan, which had ruled the island as a colony for 50 years, was defeated at the end of World War Two.
People linked to the nationalist-led government dominated politics and business, replacing the Taiwanese-born benshengren (ethnic Chinese who arrived before 1945), although many ordinary emigres found life hard as they were forced to rebuild new lives separated from family by the politics of the Cold War.
The ROC government exploited Taiwan’s wealth and resources to help in the war effort against the Communists on the mainland, fuelling anger among the Taiwanese.
Tensions bubbled to the surface on February 28, 1947 in the “228 massacre“, when nationalist troops fired on native Taiwanese protesters angry at government monopolies and mismanagement. Thousands were killed in the crackdown, and the massacre marked the start of 40 years under a brutally repressive system of martial law.
Living in exile from mainland China, first and second-generation waishengren continued to view themselves as “Chinese”– a distinction that they brought with them when they emigrated elsewhere, said James Lin, a Taiwanese historian at the University of Washington.
“Most living in Taiwan who underwent schooling in authoritarian-era Taiwan during the 1960s and 70s would have experienced an educational system that taught them they were Chinese, in terms of nationality and culture,” Lin told Al Jazeera.
“It was not until the 1980s and 90s that a Taiwanese identity began to emerge in the public discourse in Taiwan. It seems like Chou emigrated from Taiwan before that occurred, which means his own identity was likely formed in the earlier period of authoritarian rule,” he said.
Changing Taiwan, frozen diaspora
Since democratisation in the 1990s, the distinction between Taiwanese groups has largely disappeared from mainstream society, but it lives on among the diaspora and some of the older generation.
Taiwan is now one of Asia’s most robust democracies and most young people view themselves as “Taiwanese” regardless of where their grandparents were born – a point that rankles the Communist Party in Beijing and old-school hardliners in Taiwan who believe the island is an integral part of China.
Support for Taiwan’s independence has grown, as well, as most people view the government as de facto independent of China, but Chou may have retained his resentment for groups that openly identified as Taiwanese and not Chinese, like the California congregation.
“This kind of political hate crime is very hard to imagine in Taiwan today in regard to a second-generation waishengren attacking a benshengren, but it happened in the US,” said Brian Hioe, the Taiwanese-American founder of the independent magazine New Bloom. “I think a lot of the older diaspora hasn’t experienced democratic Taiwan so their perception and their politics are lagging behind.”
Hioe said the shooting was reminiscent of the 1984 assassination of Taiwanese-American journalist Henry Liu by the Bamboo Union, an organised crime group. Liu was targeted for his critical writing about Taiwan’s authoritarian government.
A symbol of democracy
Chou’s choice of target – a Presbyterian congregation – is also telling due to the denomination’s longstanding ties to Taiwan’s pro-democracy and independence movements.
“While it is the largest denomination in Taiwan, it still represents a small closely-knit community that punches above its weight in cultural and social influence both in Taiwan and among the US Taiwanese community,” said SueAnn Shiah, a Taiwanese-American community organiser pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church.
Shiah, who has been based in Taipei for the last four years, said relatives of her Bible study network were present in the California shooting on Sunday, one sign of how closely the Taiwan and US-based Presbyterian congregations stay in touch.
Michelle Kuo, a Taiwanese-American writer and professor living in Taipei, told Al Jazeera she was “devastated” by the news of the shooting and also suspected Chou had been radicalised towards violence while living in the US.
Many may also be susceptible to misinformation campaigns that target the diaspora on social media like LINE, WeChat and Facebook with conspiracy theories about Taiwan’s government and motivations, she said.
“In the US, the diaspora is more likely to experience social and cultural isolation, especially in places like Las Vegas, and to turn to the internet, media, and violent disinformation,” Kuo said.
Similar campaigns exist in Taiwan, where they have been linked to China as a form of cognitive warfare to sow discord in civilians and convince them that unification is inevitable.
Until now, much of that discord has remained online, although it took a more potent, deadly form when mixed with the US’s gun-heavy culture, said Lin.
“Even though politics can be acrimonious in Taiwan, in the US, the shooter had access to guns that would significantly more difficult in Taiwan, thus making this act of wanton violence also a near impossibility in a Taiwanese context.”