by | Jun 13, 2022 | Politics and Society
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was having brunch with some friends. A Korean American friend asked:
“I remember in school, I asked a friend from Taiwan if she is Chinese. She was very offended and insisted she was not Chinese, but Taiwanese. And then, recently I was at a dinner, where I referred to someone from Taiwan as Taiwanese. He also corrected me, saying he was ‘Chinese from Taiwan.’ What is going on?”
Tragically, at the same time in Laguna Woods, California, a gunman locked himself in a church full of elderly congregants and started firing. 52-year-old Dr. John Cheng was killed before the pastor, Billy Chang, and others restrained the shooter.
From what we know now, the shooter, David Wenwei Chou, is part of the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification (NACPU) and wrote a manifesto about “eradicating” Taiwanese independence that stretches seven volumes. U.S. authorities are looking into prosecuting the shooting as a hate crime.
Two days after the shooting, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said that Chou indicated he was born and raised in Taiwan, and that “according to the suspect’s writings that have been interpreted, he fostered a grievance against the Taiwanese community and he was upset about the political tensions between China and Taiwan.”
For people familiar with the history of Taiwan’s identity politics, we can immediately recognize what this means. The crime stemmed from the old tension between the Chinese refugees post-1949 (the “waishengren”) and the mainstream population already in Taiwan (the “benshengren”).
We understand that this tension is intricately mapped to the fight over whether Taiwan is “Chinese” or “Taiwanese,” whether the state of Taiwan exists on its own or as part of the Republic of China, and whether Taiwan is or should be a part of the People’s Republic of China, or its own nation-state.
We also painfully remember the pain and oppression by the Chiang Kai-shek regime, which represented the waishengren, and the loss of the waisheng cultural hegemony in Taiwan, replaced by a more open and chaotic society brought on by democratization in the 1990s.
We know, while most people in Taiwan have moved on from the conflict and welcomed the still-evolving civic national identity as the mainstream in Taiwan, a small group of people refuses to let go of old grudges, and their rhetoric has become not only more fringe but more extreme and violent. We see that diaspora communities often become more stuck in the past than their cousins back home because they can find other people to build echo chambers to reinforce and radicalize their beliefs.
On top of all this, the sentiments of people in Taiwan are very much influenced by U.S.-China rivalries, with the Chinese Communist Party actively sponsoring fringe, pro-China groups abroad, including the NACPU with which the shooter was affiliated.
In our community of Taiwan scholars and advocates, we understand and embrace the complexity of these issues. But to explain all this in a 5-second podcast clip or a short explainer sentence in a news article is no easy task.
This was the dilemma reporters writing about the Laguna Woods shooting faced. How does one succinctly explain the background of the shooter and why he held a grudge against the Taiwanese people without misleading the readers?
While reporters on the Asia or Indo-Pacific foreign affairs beat have experience in dealing with this question, the shooting ended up on the desks of local reporters who now have to grapple with this question in their own ways.
Several news outlets have published longer explainer pieces, such as this one by Celeste Katz Marston at NBC News (“Calif. church shooting and how to make sense of nationality-based potential hate crime”) or this one by Joyu Wang and James T. Areddy for The Wall Street Journal (“A California Church Shooting Highlights a Bitter Divide Among Taiwanese”), as well as similar pieces from the LA Times and others.
Most recently, this piece in the New York Times by Amy Qin, Jill Cowan, Shawn Hubler and Amy Chang Chien (“They Inhabited Separate Worlds in Taiwan. Decades Later, They Collided in a California Church.”) has sparked debate among members of the Taiwanese and Taiwanese American communities on how to frame these historical issues for the general audience.
This may be the first time that a domestic news incident in America put the question of Taiwan’s internal politics and Taiwan-China relations in front of the American public. This is also the first time that America’s endemic mass shooting and hate-filled domestic terrorism are on the table as part of Taiwan’s internal conflict and the Taiwan-China conflict.
How to explain Taiwan’s complex history of identity politics to the greater global audience outside of academia and policy think tanks, or even just to our curious friends, is a question at the core of Taiwan’s nation branding narrative, and has profound geopolitical and economic effects.
This was my feeble attempt of an answer to my friend at brunch: “Taiwan’s population other than indigenous Austronesian people came from the Chinese mainland throughout history. A few more recent migrants hold on to their Chinese identity, but Taiwan has gradually formed its own identity separate from China, especially with how Taiwan’s democracy has contrasted with China’s autocracy.”
I know we can come up with a better answer.

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