FBI Opens Hate Crime Investigation Into Shooting Attack On Taiwanese Americans At A Presbyterian Church
The evidence that David Chou harbored animus against Taiwanese people was mounting.
The 68-year-old suspect in the shooting attack on a Taiwanese American congregation in south Orange County “was upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan” and had left notes in his car that indicated “his real hatred of the Taiwanese people,” according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.
The FBI, meanwhile, announced it had enough evidence to open a federal hate crime investigation to determine what charges could be brought against the suspected gunman after a Sunday afternoon attack in Laguna Woods killed one person and wounded five others.
Agents had “discovered evidence that [Chou] was motivated by some type of hate,” said Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, speaking at a Monday press conference outside the Orange County Sheriff’s office in Santa Ana.
All of the shooting victims were congregating at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in space rented from Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.
Chou was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the U.S. as an adult, according to the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Los Angeles, which essentially acts as a Taiwanese consulate. Evidence collected by law enforcement indicates that Chou identifies as Chinese and was allegedly motivated by a hatred for Taiwanese people, according to law enforcement authorities.
Five of the six shooting victims — including Dr. John Cheng, who was killed — are originally from Taiwan. The fifth shooting victim is an ethnic Chinese immigrant from the Philippines who speaks a Chinese dialect similar to the Taiwanese language.
For Taiwan — and its diaspora — political tensions with China have loomed over the island for decades. China regards Taiwan, a democracy, as a renegade province that needs to be returned to the mainland. Most countries, including the U.S., do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, though the State Department says it “has a robust unofficial relationship” with the island.
China has intensified its claim to Taiwan over the past century. The island used to be ruled by the Nationalists, who had fled to the island from China after being defeated by the Communist Party in 1949. The Nationalists led the Kuomintang party, which kept Taiwan under martial law until 1987.
Taiwan is now ruled by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which the Communist Party considers anathema. Beijing would rather work with the Kuomintang, now the leading opposition party.
The targeting of a Presbyterian church was immediately noticed by scholars who follow China-Taiwan relations, such as Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Fairbanks Center For China Studies.
Church Ties To Taiwan's Pro-Independence Movement
Nachman said the Presbyterian church in Taiwan, and among Taiwanese Americans, is known for supporting the pro-independence movement.
When Taiwan was under martial law, Presbyterian church leaders helped hide pro-democracy advocates who were challenging the authoritarian state under the then-ruling Kuomintang.
“When Taiwanese began to flee to the United States, Taiwanese Presbyterian churches became these community centers for the independence cause in the United States,” Nachman said. “These Presbyterian churches became the base of operations for many pro-independence movements.”
Nachman said financial support from church members in the U.S. was sent to Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, and increased after martial law was lifted.
Authorities did not say why Chou had traveled from Las Vegas to Laguna Woods, a retirement community about 20 miles southeast of Anaheim, bypassing other Taiwanese American churches in between.
With the shooting investigation pending and important details about the suspect’s motives and background still missing, Taiwan-China watchers warned against extrapolating a political narrative from a single tragedy.
A Taiwan-versus-China narrative can fan Sinophobia, already rampant in right-wing circles, that is dangerous for Asian Americans who have seen a rise in violent attacks, according to Jessica Drun, a D.C.-based non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub.
“How do you frame this debate in a way that doesn't spill over and harm the broader AAPI community,” Drun asked. “And how do you not demonize Chinese Americans?”
Drun said she views China as a strategic competitor to the U.S. and wants to advance U.S.-Taiwan relations, but added there must be political nuance to discussing relations across the Taiwan Strait and Taiwanese identity.
"Fundamentally, I think the people that are trying to make it so black-and-white wouldn't even be able to distinguish Taiwanese Americans from Chinese Americans," Drun said.
Nachman, too, worried that the region's history will be lost on those eager to villainize China.
"There's going to be a big push for people to frame this as [China] versus Taiwan, localizing in American politics," Nachman said.