Identity of California shooting suspect latest source of tension across Taiwan Strait

The Geneva Presbyterian Church is seen after a deadly shooting, in Laguna Woods, California, US on May 15, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters

A claim by US authorities that a shooting at a California church on Sunday (May 15) was motivated by hatred against Taiwan has drawn an angry response from mainland Chinese online, after the suspected gunman was confirmed as Taiwanese himself.

The 68-year-old suspect has been identified as David Chou of Las Vegas. He is accused of killing one person and injuring five others at the church attended by retired Taiwanese immigrants in Orange County.

US authorities had identified the suspected gunman as a Chinese immigrant and US citizen and said he had a grievance with the Taiwanese community.

But Taiwanese authorities later confirmed that Chou was born and raised in Taiwan.

It comes as tensions are soaring between Taiwan and mainland China, which claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to take it under mainland control.

Some mainland Chinese took to social media after the suspect was confirmed as Taiwanese.

“It was a Taiwanese shot at other Taiwanese, or a US citizen shot at other US citizens. But those who control the media wanted to wrongly direct the blame to us,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also noted that the suspect was from Taiwan and not mainland China during a regular briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

A memorial grows outside the entrance to the building where Dr. John Cheng, a 52-year-old victim who was killed in Sunday's shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church, worked in Aliso Viejo, California, US on May 17, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters

“We hope the US government takes concrete and effective measures to address the growing problem of gun violence in their country,” Wang told reporters.

On social media, many mainland Chinese also criticised US gun policy.

“Oranges grown in the north become bitter. A Chinese man, no matter from the mainland or Taiwan, emigrated to the US and became a mass shooter. What’s wrong with that country?” another Weibo post read.

But according to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, the suspect’s motive was hatred towards Taiwan, as he is the second generation of one of many families forcibly removed from mainland China to Taiwan sometime after 1948.

The case and its response highlights the complexity of the “Chinese” identity in the context of a decades-long military confrontation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

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While most mainland Chinese want to reunify with Taiwan, national identity and political views on the island are fragmented among different generations and people of different backgrounds.

In 1949, the communists won the Chinese civil war and occupied the mainland, while Chiang Kaishek and his Kuomintang (KMT) party fled to Taiwan with hundreds of thousands of mainlanders.

These new arrivals had tense relations with the native Taiwanese, and during the decades of martial law under the KMT a pro-democracy movement emerged that later developed into the Taiwan independence movement.

The Presbyterian Church targeted in Sunday’s shooting has closely identified with the Taiwanese pro-independence cause.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.