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A deadly church shooting exposes the complexities of Taiwanese and Chinese identities

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Last month, a man born in Taiwan opened fire at a Taiwanese church in California. He wrote that he did so because he opposes Taiwan's independence from China. The gunfire left one person dead and five injured and exposed how rising tensions between Taiwan and China are playing out in the U.S. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Just before 68-year-old David Wenwei Chou glued and chained shut the doors of this California church then shot the elderly congregants inside, he mailed his handwritten diaries to a Taiwanese newspaper. He titled his screed, "Diary Of An Angel Of Destroying Independence," Taiwanese independence from China.

TONY LEE: From Sweden, European country, Japan, Australia, Taiwan - around the world.

FENG: Now Taiwanese activist Tony Lee shows me how the California street corner outside the Geneva Presbyterian Church is covered with flowers from Taiwanese people living all over the world. At first, English-language coverage mistakenly described Chou, the shooter, as a Chinese immigrant. In fact, he was born in Taiwan to Chinese parents, a group of people in Taiwan called waishengren, meaning outside province people. Many waishengren expected and wanted Taiwan to one day become one country with China. Lee explains they also had lots of political privileges. But as Taiwan became its own democracy, that changed.

LEE: So they say, wait a minute. We have before, how come we don't have now? So that's why they think they're Chinese. So that's why - come out this killer Taiwanese.

FENG: Even in California, waishengren immigrants and benshengren - or native province Taiwanese - keep their distance from each other. For example, the church that Chou targeted was known for its wealthy pro-Taiwanese benshengren congregation. But at first, Chou seemed to settle in the U.S. He specialized in hospitality and wrote a book on wine. Then, as his life and finances unraveled after a divorce, he began ranting to acquaintances about how much he resented Taiwan's de facto independence.

JENNY KOO: (Through interpreter) He was very agitated. Every time he brought up Taiwan independence, he got very worked up. I just thought, it wasn't right.

FENG: This is Jenny Koo, who leads a Las Vegas branch of the Peace and Reunification Society, which works for Taiwan's unification with China. It's a group overseen by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. And Chou, the shooter, tried to join in 2019. But Koo says she refused.

KOO: (Through interpreter) We respect the other side's opinions. But Chou demonized them. You could tell from the language he used that he no longer saw people from Taiwan as people.

FENG: For some, emigrating to the U.S. can be a fresh start, a chance to wipe the slate clean of old-world grudges. For Chou, emigrating from Taiwan to the U.S. seemed only to amplify historical divisions, a phenomenon Taiwanese writer Leona Chen calls the immigrant time capsule.

LEONA CHEN: The very salient political conflicts and tensions experienced during martial law were sort of incubated and carried over by our parents' and grandparents' generation. And then, they just continued to stay that way even as Taiwan has evolved.

FENG: The shooter is in police custody and has been charged with capital murder. Dr. John Cheng, the Taiwanese doctor he killed, is considered a hero for helping subdue Chou long enough for police to arrive. So far, there's no indication of imminent war between China and Taiwan. But the casualties of this conflict are already cropping up.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Laguna Woods, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAKO'S "GELIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.