Addressing the Elephant in the Room: The California Shooting and the “Political Problem”

Written by Hsi-Yao Lin and Yi-Lan Lin; translated by Yi-Yu Lai.

Image credit: Police Crime Scene Tape by Jobs For Felons Hub/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

It has been a while since the mass shooting at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Southern California, United States, occurred last year. Many pieces of evidence are still ambiguous and cannot be determined. Nonetheless, if we focus on the moment when the shooting happened, the “political” reaction in Taiwanese public opinion demonstrates the complexity and difficulties of Taiwan’s ethnic politics since 1949. 

Before committing the crime, according to the investigation, the perpetrator, David Wen-Wei Chou, delivered seven copies of the manifesto entitled Diary of an Angel Destroying [Taiwan] Independence (滅獨天使日記) along with a flash drive to World Journal, a Taiwanese newspaper published in North America. Consequently, “political motive” has emerged as a potential explanation for this incident. Whether people responded to the victims with sympathy, silence, or outrage, these reactions illustrate that the “elephant” in Taiwan had not vanished after martial law’s end in 1987. Moreover, the provincial origin surrounding the national identity issue, which is frequently seen as “diluting” following democratisation, has re-emerged in the context of the “unification and independence issue.” 

This shooting was not a unique case that sparked political tensions between the Chinese, Taiwanese, and Americans. In January 2023, a series of mass shootings also occurred in California, and two of them were emphasised since the suspects and victims seemed to be Asian. In one of the murders, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran killed several attendees at a ballroom dance hall in the primarily Asian neighbourhood of Monterey Park on January 21, when tens of thousands of people were celebrating the Lunar New Year. Before the investigators released further information, popular opinion had already pointed out Monterey Park as “Little Taipei” since the 1980s. Even if a large number of Chinese immigrants have replaced Taiwanese immigrants in recent years, people cannot help but think about these keywords and the corresponding political concerns. 

Similar to Chou’s case, many constantly guessed where the perpetrator was from. While the police said he was from China, there were still various surmises since his surname seemed to be one that Chinese Vietnamese would use. Why does the origin of the perpetrators matter? How does it connect to political controversies?

“Taiwanese” or “Chinese”? The Entanglement between Provincial Origin and Political Status of Taiwan

After the incident at the Presbyterian Church, there were different opinions on David Wen-Wei Chou’s identity. Compared to the 2022 Buffalo shooting that occurred at a similar period in the United States, in which a white individual walked directly into the Black community and murdered ten people, the Southern California case portrays an Asian shooting Asian people from a United States perspective. Nonetheless, the identity paradox concealed underneath the skin tone is the immediate focus of many Taiwanese since whether David Wen-Wei Chou is “Chinese” or “Taiwanese” may become a decisive factor in assessing the perpetrator’s intentions. 

Was the indiscriminate attack on the Church a mere coincidence? Or did the perpetrator intentionally target the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which has always opposed the KMT regime? If he knew such a detailed historical context in Taiwan, where did the perpetrator come from?

David Wen-Wei Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953, according to a Central News Agency interview with Louis M. Huang, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles. Before around fifty years ago, the place of birth on Taiwanese passports was listed in English as “Republic of China”; hence, immigrants to the United States often listed China as their birthplace on official documents. As a result, it is plausible that Chou listed China as his place of birth when applying for a U.S. passport, leading the U.S. authorities to believe he was from China. 

This convention for the U.S. passport fifty years ago is like a political metaphor for this incident, which indicates that Chiang Kai-shek’s policy of “no coexistence between Chinese and thieves” continues to influence those who reject “independence.” Yi-Zhu Cai and XXXXGAY, social media celebrities, shared and condemned another influencer, San-Len Wu’s controversial screenshot: “A person who has been observing the rampaging monster for a long time without ever achieving justice launched a suicide attack on the monster…#SaluteToTheBrave.” Since Wu expressed his stance on the shooting occurrence in this manner, it definitely exhibits an extreme ideology. 

The Taiwanese Presbyterian Church also received threatening phone calls after the incident. Unknown individuals contacted and threatened to detonate Presbyterian Church buildings, promoting the Taiwanese police to be cautious. In this case, the Presbyterian Church was unquestionably the victim, yet it was targeted since some people tend to blame victims. If we examine the comments section underneath an interview with the Church’s Pastor Billy Chang, most were hateful and intolerable. In this regard, it demonstrates that the shooting’s impact should not be underestimated. 

“Destroy [Taiwanese] independence is a symbol ingrained in our national identity, and people of all backgrounds could embrace it,” Bing-Zhong Wang explained. Wang, whose parents were born in Taiwan but who speaks with a distinct retroflex accent, has always held a firm stance about his reunification claim. On the other hand, David Wen-Wei Chou, as the second generation of mainland migrants, obviously evokes the historical wounds on the island by attacking the Taiwanese American community.

Those Taiwanese Americans who gathered at the Presbyterian Church during the incident were originally studying in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Some could not return to Taiwan because they were on the blacklist due to their political stance, and they could not even attend their parents’ funerals back in Taiwan. In consequence, they decided to settle in the United States. Because of this context and Chou’s background, Pastor Billy Chang claimed, “Problems stemming from provincial origin should only persist till my generation.” Regardless of the perpetrator’s actual motive, what is the role of “provincial origin” in this case? Since others have asserted, “Provincial origin is not an issue; the problem lies in national identity,” how can we comprehend a person like Pastor Chang, who was triggered by memories of a deprived mother tongue, ethnic identity and the imposition of Great China ideology? As some people contend that either reunification or independence is not a true issue, public opinions seemingly form an ironic paradox. 

Similar to these debates, the “provincial origin” issue surrounding the February 28 incident of 1947 has often resulted in tensions in Taiwanese society. Last year, for instance, KMT-appointed PTS (Public Television Service) selection committee members rejected historian Tsui-Lien Chen to join the board due to her expertise in the February 28 incident. They feared that her views could divide Taiwanese people and negatively impact the operation of PTS. However, why might the study of the incident tear apart Taiwanese people? Those familiar with Taiwan’s history should be aware that the casualties of the incident were not merely Taiwanese but also mainland migrants who had moved to Taiwan after 1949. Even during the white terror, numerous victims of unjust or false cases were mainland migrants. While KMT sought to define the incident as a confrontation between Taiwanese and mainland migrants, how can it speak for all mainland migrants?

Will the Problem Disappear If the Elephant in the Room Is Ignored?

Even when discussing the 2022 shooting in Southern California in the context of “Chinese Americans,” there are some intriguing details. Puma Shen, associate professor at the graduate school of criminology, National Taipei University, used the history of overseas anti-Chinese incidents as a reference point. He argues that when confronted with racial hostility, overseas Chinese communities tended to form a solidarity alliance to fight foreign aggression. For example, after the 2022 Buffalo shooting, Chinese overseas groups released a statement urging the reduction of racial hatred incidents. It seemed odd that after the Southern California shooting, these groups maintained a low profile and did not issue a statement. The CCPPNR (China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification), an organisation Chou once participated in, even stated to the public that he was not a group member. 

It is not difficult to imagine that the CCPPNR did not want the reunification issue associated with gun violence and fundamentalism. Instead, it sought to distinguish itself from individual acts of violence by highlighting its peaceful means. However, it should not be forgotten that China often threatens to attack Taiwan with military force. In addition, if it can maintain as low a profile as possible and downplay its political factors, the U.S. government may pay less attention to this occurrence and then portray it as an internal conflict among Asian communities. Otherwise, U.S. officials may perceive this incident as extreme violence in China’s protracted sovereignty dispute with Taiwan.

According to Puma Shen, it is vital to gain the backing of relevant NGOs and political lobbying groups since the U.S. government has not fully disclosed the outcome of the investigation. FAPA (The Formosan Association for Public Affairs) requested the U.S. government should draw greater attention to such a hate crime with political motivation so that this tragedy and Taiwan’s current political situation would generate more discussions. 

Since further evidence is required to prove whether overseas Chinese groups provoked Chou’s shooting, the court will become the next battleground. In other words, it is notable if Chou’s personal behaviour may be linked to cross-strait political conflicts. Meanwhile, some media reported a 2012 incident in which Chou was attacked by a tenant while collecting rent. Did this incident affect Chou’s behaviour or mental state, leading to the tragic shooting? Puma Shen anticipated that these puzzles might be discussed in court, but Chou should not exonerate easily. 

Even if this tragedy occurred in the United States, our understanding of the shooting is nonetheless influenced by national and personal identities concerning Taiwan-China tensions. Who should handle the elephant in the room? How should Taiwanese people approach this age-old and protracted issue while awaiting the court’s ruling and facing other mass shootings aimed at Asians? The unresolved cross-strait relationship might soon cause the “inflating elephant” to explode.

Hsi-Yao Lin and Yi-Lan Lin are the editors at udn Opinion in Taiwan. 

This article is a translated piece from udn Opinion. Find the original article here. It was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.

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