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Calif. church shooting and how to make sense of nationality-based potential hate crime

"I think this arose from a collision of ... Taiwan-China tensions, but it took form in this specific way because of the gun violence that is in our country," one expert said.
Flowers and police tape Tuesday outside Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, Calif. Ashley Landis / AP

Despite an increase in hate and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, attacks within the AAPI community are rare — making it all the more startling that a Southern California mass shooting Sunday at a Taiwanese church was allegedly carried out by a Taiwanese American gunman. 

Unpacking the history and sentiment that may have led suspect David Chou, 68, to the violence at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church — which left one dead and five injured — is a complicated task, experts say.

Relations between mainland China and Taiwan involve political repression, violence and varying degrees of international recognition of Taiwan’s status and sovereignty. In the U.S., even the ability to self-identify as being of Taiwanese heritage in the U.S. Census has been a battle. 

Chou was born in and lived in Taiwan — which is self-governed but China claims as part of its territory — before coming to America. He was aggrieved by tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, which police are pointing to as the motive. He shared pro-unification beliefs and attacked a church aligned with pro-Taiwanese independence.

“I think this arose from a collision of a lot of tensions about Taiwanese identity and Chinese identity and Taiwan-China tensions, but it took form in this specific way because of the gun violence that is in our country,” nonprofit group leader Leona Chen said.

In the California case, “I think this arose from a collision of a lot of tensions about Taiwanese identity and Chinese identity and Taiwan-China tensions, but it took form in this specific way because of the gun violence that is in our country,” said Leona Chen, editor in chief of, a website and nonprofit group serving the Taiwanese American community. 

“I would urge that this not be used to further anti-Chinese sentiment or inflammatory rhetoric or further scapegoating of Asian Americans,” she said. “We also don’t want this to take away from other instances of gun violence recently.”

Police said they are investigating the shooting as a hate crime.

“Taiwan’s identity is extremely politicized — both from the People’s Republic of China, who claim that Taiwan is a renegade province, and domestically, [from] the Chinese Nationalist Party or the KMT,” Chen said. “They are an oppositional political party that came to Taiwan after World War II, and they enacted a violent period of martial law to suppress pro-independence, democratization movements within Taiwan from the mid to late 20th century.” 

Today, there are mainland Chinese who insist Taiwan is or should be part of China, and there are also divisions between the original inhabitants of Taiwan and mainlanders who fled there during China’s civil war and became part of the island’s population.

Tensions between Taiwan and China are at a notable high at this very moment: In April, with China’s Xi Jinping vowing to “unify” China and Taiwan by force if necessary, Taiwan’s defense ministry for the first time put out a civil defense handbook to prepare its citizens for a potential military conflict with China.

"One of the things that we know about nationality-based hate crimes is when things get hot elsewhere, they get hot here,” professor Brian Levin said.

While FBI hate crime data shows Asian-on-Asian hate incidents represent an infinitesimal percentage of such incidents, “one of the things that we know about nationality-based hate crimes is when things get hot elsewhere, they get hot here” in the U.S., said Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We do see these [cases], but not a lot,” he says.

After the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church shooting, Chou was arrested and charged with one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder. Orange County authorities have said Chinese-language written notes found in his car professed a quasi-obsessional anger about Taiwan-China relations and a hatred of Taiwanese people. Chou drove to the California church from Las Vegas and opened fire before being subdued by churchgoers.

Chen said that “in the U.S., most pro-independence and Chinese nationalist groups don’t intermingle, so the politics of the shooter would’ve made him part of a very separate community than the politics of the church congregation. This divide is [great enough that] it cannot reconcile two groups of people just because they both come from Taiwan, because the way they feel about the country and the identity and the culture and heritage is so different… 

“I think the animus is ongoing, but it doesn’t usually manifest in such violent ways,” she said.

Experts note that there are generational differences when it comes to people's stance on the status and future of Taiwan: older Chinese and Taiwanese may have different experiences and attitudes toward the conflict than younger people who are not as close to war or martial law eras.

Broadly speaking, said Zhengyu Huang, president of Committee of 100, a nonprofit organization of prominent Chinese Americans, people of Asian descent in the U.S. “have come together because we understand that there is strength in unity and collective action. The Asian American identity is being forged through decades of challenges and obstacles and advances, including the Vincent Chin murder and the more recent anti-Asian hate and violence.”

That said, he told NBC News via email, “At times, the historical episodes of various Asian countries carry over to America — for example, the lingering concerns stemming from World War II between Koreans and Japanese. However, Asian Americans, especially the younger generation, are really brought together by a common American identity and an appreciation for their diverse cultural heritages… We know [the] AAPI community is diverse and varied, with significant differences in education, cultural, and income levels. We must come together to understand each other, support each other, and speak up for each other.”

Andrew Ji, managing director of the Orange County regional office of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a legal and civil rights organization, also emphasized both the diversity of the community and the need to work together in the wake of the church tragedy.

“There’s so much diversity within each API community, even within each culture — there’s different dialects, there’s different religious beliefs,” Ji said. “Working for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, that’s something that we always have to navigate — that historically there’s been tensions between multiple groups that we do represent.”

Ji, who has been in contact with congregation members since the shooting, said what happened Sunday is completely at odds with what he’s personally seen in his work with the Orange County AAPI community. 

“I have spoken and counseled with countless clients both from the mainland Chinese side and the Taiwanese side. [There] may have been ideological differences, or someone from the Taiwanese perspective [saying], ‘Please leave us alone, we’re sovereign,’ versus from the Chinese side, it wouldn’t necessarily be angry or vindictive, but it’s more like, ‘Hey, we’re one people, come back home,’” Ji said. 

“But how it would manifest into this type of violence... It had to have been — in my opinion —  just personal,” Ji said. 

“Perhaps there [have] been these historical tensions, but as we have seen it in our communities and the way that we gather together, especially in Orange County, there is a very vibrant mixture of mainland Chinese immigrants and Taiwanese immigrants,” he said. “There might be a little squabble here and there, [but] nothing ever to the point where it would come to violence.”