Rampage at a California church reveals little-known tensions between two groups of Taiwanese

Hilary Wu of Orange County, California comes from a family that lived in Taiwan for hundreds of years. Her friend identifies as the descendant of a wave of people from China who were exiled to Taiwan under the Chinese Nationalist government in the 1940s, when the communists took over mainland China.

But Wu, 40, and her boyfriend only discussed the difference once over dinner. They do not care. “We’re very different in the way we were raised and we’re different people, but that doesn’t affect our values, our morals,” said Wu, a hospital nutritionist who moved to California with her parents as a child .

But the historical differences and ongoing tensions between the two groups became clear outside of Taiwan on Sunday, when a gunman opened fire at a congregation of a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Southern California, where Wu lives. The suspected shooter was born and raised in Taiwan and had ties to pro-Chinese groups, Taiwanese media say. The parishioners he is accused of shooting were descended from families who had lived in Taiwan for centuries.

Authorities said David Wenwei Chou, 68, of Las Vegas, was arrested and charged with killing a man, 52-year-old Dr. John Cheng, who assaulted the suspect and allowed others to subdue him, according to the Associated Press. Five others were injured.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes cited a grievance between the shooter, a US citizen, and the Taiwanese community. The suspect “was upset by the political tensions between China and Taiwan,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement Monday.

British Presbyterians who reached Taiwan in 1865 forged close ties with local Taiwanese and advocated the island’s independence from China, wrote author and historian Christine Louise Lin in her book The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and the Advocacy of Local Autonomy.

“I don’t like to think of it as a hate crime, but it is a hate crime,” Wu said. “There’s a political aspect to the[background]but this person is also crazy. I was very shocked to find out that it is another Asian American who is performing on Taiwanese Americans.”

Taiwan’s domestic differences

Partition has affected domestic politics, education, and other facets of life in Taiwan since the 1940s.

In 1949, the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China and took control of the island after fleeing Mao Zedong’s communists in the Chinese Civil War. The nationalists kept Taiwan under authoritarian rule until democratization in the 1980s.

Known as “Benshengren,” Taiwanese with centuries of history on the island favor the now-ruling Democratic Progressive Party. This party rejects promises by the modern Chinese government to seize the island by force if necessary. The nationalists, or “waishengren,” many of Chinese origin who settled in Taiwan with Chiang, take a more conciliatory stance toward China.

Paul Yang, 52, a Taiwan-born Orange County real estate agency owner who has lived in the United States for 31 years and knows people associated with the church where the shooting took place. Orange County Chamber of Commerce President Yang says its 200 members rarely discuss politics in public.

Yang still identifies as Benshengren, but says he rarely hears the term anymore.

“When I go back to Taiwan and talk to younger generations, the terms ‘bensheng’ and ‘waisheng’ aren’t used as often as they were when I was a kid,” he said.

The two Taiwanese ethnic groups have no “real problems” in the United States, said Chien Minze, president of the Washington-based Taiwan advocacy group Formosan Association for Public Affairs. He knows of no other US incident like the shooting. “We respect each other,” he said, referring to the two groups. “There is nothing as extreme as we (have to).”

Revival of friction in Taiwan

In Taiwan, the shooting is likely to make people think about the split again, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Taipei University of Culture. Domestic news reports will focus on that angle, he predicted, and the island’s political parties may air it themselves.

“What worries me is this: the incident in California will reinforce a vicious cycle,” Chao said. “This shooting was politically motivated from the start, and the interpretation in Taiwan is that it is political. Everything to do with Taiwan-Mainland China relations is politicized.”

Taiwan’s ruling party said in a statement on social media that it “condemns” all forms of violence, but did not address the political aspect.

Sunday’s shooting may alarm Taiwanese about fringe political activists who have mainland China sympathies and support Taiwan-China unification, said Sean Su, an independent political analyst in Taiwan. Su said supporters of a pro-China group smashed his windows while he was living in New York 15 years ago.

“These groups tend to be radicalized in the United States,” Su said. “Many Taiwanese groups have been harassed and threatened by these pro-China unification groups over the years.”

Unanswered questions

Peggy Huang, a Taiwanese-American city councilman in Yorba Linda, a suburb near the shooting range, called the policy a likely “oversimplification” of the reasons for the shooting. She particularly wonders how a Las Vegas suspect chose a church in Laguna Woods for his attack. The city of 16,000 is attractive to retirees, and there are Taiwanese churches in other parts of Orange County.

“No doubt he has some hateful feelings towards the Taiwanese,” Huang said. “But that he comes to this church specifically? This church is not easy to find. That is the topic of conversation among us.”

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