As U.S. authorities searched for a motive in the mass shooting at a California church that killed one and injured five others, one question has consumed Chinese and Taiwanese communities worldwide: Is David Chou, the 68-year-old suspected shooter, Chinese or Taiwanese?
Don Barnes, an Orange County sheriff, identified Chou as an immigrant from China in a press conference on Monday. He said the Sunday attack at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods was possibly motivated by his political hatred of Taiwan, a self-rule democracy that Beijing claims as its own territory. 
The sheriff’s remarks immediately caused an uproar among Taiwanese and Chinese people. “Chinese immigrant who hates Taiwanese killed indiscriminately,” Taiwanese outlet Apple Daily wrote in a post on Facebook, where it has 3.7 million followers. On Twitter-like Weibo, commenters from mainland China argued over whether the shooter, an American citizen, constitutes Chinese.
But any simplistic narratives were soon challenged by newly emerged details, highlighting the complex and politically sensitive nature of the Taiwanese identity and debate over the self-governed island’s status.
“There was most certainly going to be a desire in the United States especially to frame this as China attacks Taiwan on U.S. soil. That’s a very inaccurate way of describing this,” said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. 
“It shouldn’t be overblown as a big People’s Republic of China and Republic of China showdown story, which I think is what a lot of people are inclined to think, especially with geopolitical tensions rising up so quickly,” he said, using the official names of China and Taiwan, respectively.
The shooting is being investigated as a possibly “politically motivated hate incident,” according to the U.S. authorities, who found notes expressing hatred toward Taiwanese people in Chou’s car after the attack.
But contradicting U.S. police’s claim, Taiwanese authorities said Tuesday that Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953. Soon, Apple Daily edited its Facebook post to replace the term “Chinese immigrant” with “shooter of Taiwanese descent.” But the debate on the possibly political motive of the shooter has persisted.
At the time of Chou’s birth, the Chinese Communist Party had just won a civil war and driven the Nationalist Party to Taiwan, where it ruled for nearly four decades as a brutal dictatorship until it embarked on democratic reforms in the 1990s.
The split has remained to this day, and tensions between the two governments have escalated in recent years as Beijing ramped up pressure to isolate the island diplomatically. China’s President Xi Jinping has vowed to achieve “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan while threatening to use military force if the island declares formal independence.
Taiwan’s 23.6 million residents overwhelmingly reject unification with mainland China, a poll in 2021 found. As a member of the Taiwanese diaspora, Chou, however, appears to advocate for such a future.
News reports following the shooting revealed that Chou attended a gathering of a pro-unification group in the U.S. in 2019. Many immediately drew a link between the shooter and similar political groups, which are backed by the Chinese authorities, some going as far as to blame the ruling Chinese Communist Party for the violence. “Investigate the communist forces behind it,” a comment on Facebook demanded. 
Working in what analysts call “gray zones,” these unification groups are often linked to the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification (NACPU). Although registered as an independent nongovernmental organization in the U.S., the group was designated by Washington in 2020 as a foreign mission of China. This is a subject of growing debate in the U.S. as Chinese influence has become a regular talking point in American politics.
These groups are a front for an entity that is known to be a wing of the Communist Party, J Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, told VICE World News. “The messaging that it, along with propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party, encourages with regards to Taiwan is at times extremist and, as we saw in California this week, can push unhinged individuals over the edge and lead them to commit terrible acts of violence,” Cole said.
But while Chou has been photographed at events held by Las Vegas Chinese for Peaceful Unification, the pro-unification group founded in April 2019 has sought to distance itself from him and the NACPU. 
“I spoke to Chou twice, but I found his thoughts too radical and kept a distance afterwards,” Jenny Koo, chairwoman of the organization, told VICE World News. “Since the later half of 2019, he did not participate in any of our activities and was no longer a member.”
Koo said Chou appeared at the group’s founding event uninvited. “We offered him an opportunity to speak as we welcome anyone that supports the peaceful reunification of China.” The group is not affiliated with NACPU, she added. 
The chairwoman of the Taiwanese Association of America Las Vegas Chapter, of which Chou is a member, told members to be cautious of narratives that depict Chou as Chinese to inflame U.S. hatred toward China. 
“His depression has been very severe lately and it might have caused him to act irrationally,” she wrote in a message sent to members of the association, seen by VICE World News. “He is pro-Blue,” she wrote, referring to his support for Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist party, which generally endorses warmer ties with Beijing. “But he is very amicable in the association’s gatherings. He only showed strong indignance at unfairness in the society in his remarks.”
Other details about Chou underscored a troubled life. Taiwanese media reported that he has spent brief teaching stints at different tertiary institutions and was fired by at least one. His life unraveled after his wife left him, taking the money from the sale of his apartment in October to return to Taiwan, Balmore Orellana, a former neighbor in Las Vegas, told the Associated Press
On Sunday, Chou attended a lunch banquet held by the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, where he sealed the doors and opened fire on a group of mostly Taiwanese elderly parishioners. The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan is “unabashedly pro-independence,” Nachman of Harvard University said, noting that the church’s connections to the Taiwanese independence movement ran way back to the 1970s, when it sheltered pro-democracy activists under the Nationalist party’s authoritarian rule.
Chou wounded five people and killed John Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor born in Taiwan and father of two, who tackled him to the ground, allowing others to subdue him and foiling what could have been a massacre.
Now in jail, Chou is expected to face murder and attempted murder charges.
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