The California Church Shooter and His Connections to China’s United Front System

The California Church Shooter and His Connections to China’s United Front System

The California Church Shooter and His Connections to China’s United Front System

Between the horrific massacres that occurred on May 14 in Buffalo and on May 24 in Uvalde, Texas, another incident on Sunday, May 15 provided yet another entry in America’s tragic history of mass shootings. On that day, David Wen-wei Chou (周文偉), a 68-year-old naturalized US citizen of Taiwanese-Chinese heritage, opened fire on congregants at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in the town of Laguna Woods, California (Orange County, greater Los Angeles area), killing one person and wounding five more. After arriving at the church following a long drive from his residence in the Las Vegas area, Chou reportedly chained the doors shut, super-glued locks, and placed improvised incendiary devices about the building, before opening fire on the mostly elderly attendees at a church luncheon. The shooting rampage could have had a much higher toll, were it not for the heroic actions of Dr. John Cheng (鄭達志)—who reportedly tackled the shooter, and was himself fatally shot—and other attendees who subdued and restrained the suspect. 

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer described the attack as a premeditated plan “to execute, in cold blood, as many people as possible,” while California officials have stated that they are investigating the incident as a hate crime. As indicated in a May 17 press release from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, “[a]ccording to the suspect’s writings that have been interpreted, he fostered a grievance against the Taiwanese community and he was upset about the political tensions between China and Taiwan.” Prior to carrying out the attack, Chou reportedly mailed multiple copies of a journal-cum-manifesto—which he had titled “Diary of an Independence-Destroying Angel” (滅獨天使日記)—to the World Journal (世界新聞網), a southern California-based Chinese language newspaper.

Although much about Chou Wen-wei’s background remains sketchy, a number of facts about his life have been reported in media. The available information paints a portrait of a man whose simmering resentments—as well as his reasons for selecting the institution targeted in his rampage—reach back many decades into Taiwan’s history, connecting the martial law era of Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) dictatorship with the continuing sovereignty disputes of the present day.

Chou Wen-wei’s Life Before the Shooting

Chou is a naturalized US citizen of Taiwanese-Chinese heritage, who had lived in the Las Vegas area for at least 10 years. Per reporting in the same newspaper that received his manifesto, Chou was born in Taiwan in 1953 to a waishengren (外省人, mainlander) family, with a father who hailed from the province of Hunan. Chou grew up in a settlement for KMT military families, attending first high school and then Feng Chia University (逢甲大學) in the central Taiwan city of Taichung, before later emigrating to the United States. By some accounts, his experiences growing up as a waishengren left him with an outsider’s bitterness towards the majority native Taiwanese. 

After emigrating to the United States, Chou reportedly worked in a number of jobs over time—including property management and translating immigration documents—and in more recent years had worked as a security guard. The stressors in his life had multiplied: his career had clearly not lived up to his ambitions, and his wife had reportedly fallen ill and left him to return to Taiwan in 2021. He lived alone, and—if the title of his journal is any indication—fell deeper into grandiose fantasies and radicalized resentment focused on advocates, perceived or otherwise, of Taiwan independence. 

Although Chou seemed for the most part to live an isolated existence, one of his few apparent connections was with the Las Vegas chapter of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (CPPRC, 中國和平統一促進會). Chou was present at the founding meeting of the Las Vegas chapter (see accompanying image), and by at least one account acted for a time as an executive member. The CPPRC is the largest and most widespread of the front organizations operated overseas by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP, 中國共產黨) United Front Work Department (UFWD, 中共中央統戰部). The organization serves as a forum for disseminating CCP propaganda among Chinese-speakers, and is the party’s single most important organization in terms of its efforts to control and mobilize the worldwide Chinese diaspora. [1] 

Chou’s connections to the CPPRC were quickly noted in the wake of the church shooting, with some commentators comparing Chou’s pro-unification extremism with the white supremacist ideology of the Buffalo supermarket shooter. In Taiwan, representatives of the Presbyterian Church convened a press conference to condemn the shooting, while also drawing direct attention to Chou’s ties to the CPPRC. In addition, members of 60 civic groups signed an open letter stating that the shooting “stemmed from the Chinese Communist Party repeatedly provoking hatred toward the Taiwanese people,” and calling on Taiwan’s government to designate the CPPRC as a terrorist group. For its part, the Las Vegas CPPRC chapter has sought to distance itself from Chou, with chapter President Gu Yawen (顧雅文) telling media that Chou’s extreme views had made him unwelcome, and that he had no role in the group’s activities after 2019.

The Presbyterian Church’s Historical Links with Taiwan’s Pro-Democracy Movement 

Although Chou’s actions could hardly be considered rational, the chosen target for his intended mass murder—a congregation of mostly elderly Taiwanese-Americans, attending a social event at a Presbyterian church—was not an accident. In Taiwan, the Presbyterian Church of the martial law era played a prominent role in the pro-democracy and Taiwan native rights movement that eventually coalesced into the Tang-wai (黨外, “outside the party”) movement—which itself ultimately coalesced into the foundations of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨). The denomination became involved in dissident activities in the 1970s, amid a cycle of increasing activism by church members, as well as state efforts to suppress Taiwanese identity and opposition activity. 

In 1970, the denomination was pressured by the KMT regime to withdraw from the World Council of Churches, due to the latter organization’s support for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) entering the United Nations. Friction between the state and the church rose in the mid-1970s, when the government took steps to suppress the use of Hokkien (e.g., Taiwanese) language materials in church services. Tensions escalated even more in 1977, when the church’s general assembly issued a statement calling for the KMT government “to face reality and to take effective measures whereby Taiwan may become a new and independent country.” Graduates of the church’s Tainan Theological College (台南神學院), such as Tsai Yu-chuan (蔡有全), also became active in late 1970s protests and ran afoul of the authorities. (The seminary itself was threatened with closure in 1984). Church leader Reverend Kao Chun-ming (高俊明) was arrested in the wake of the December 1979 Kaohsiung Incident (高雄事件), on grounds of assisting opposition figure Shih Ming-te (施明德) in hiding from the authorities, and served 4 years in prison. 


The historical connections between the Presbyterian Church and Taiwan’s pro-democracy and pro-independence movement is an aspect of Taiwan’s history that would likely be lost on most Chinese nationalists in the PRC. Yet, the shooter in the May 15 incident, who grew up in a waishengren family in Taiwan, would almost certainly have been aware of this legacy. Furthermore, Chou’s strange blurring of political and religious obsessions—his preoccupations with “separatist demons” and “independence-destroying angels”—may well have made him more likely to select a church as his target, with tragic consequences.

From the limited information that has been made public, it appears that Chou was a lone actor in playing out his violent delusions. There is currently no available evidence that the CPPRC or any of its members played a role in either encouraging or assisting Chou in the shooting; and indeed, such violent incidents are counterproductive in fostering the CCP’s preferred narratives surrounding Taiwan’s “inevitable historical trend” of “reunification […] with the ancestral motherland.” However, there remain legitimate questions regarding the degree to which the CCP’s escalating rhetoric on Taiwan—including accusations that the DPP is “conspiring with foreign forces to split the country” (與外部勢力勾連分裂國家), and directing a “green terror” (綠色恐怖) against its domestic opponents—creates an information environment in which unstable individuals like Chou may become further radicalized. Although there appears to be no direct link between the CCP’s united front system and the May 15 shooting in Laguna Woods, the demonizing rhetoric of the CCP propaganda system played a contributing role in this tragedy.

The main point: The tragic May 15 church shooting in Laguna Woods, California appears to be the work of a radicalized lone individual who was motivated by hatred of persons and organizations he perceived as advocates of Taiwan independence—in this instance, a Taiwanese-American Presbyterian Church congregation. The shooting does not appear to be directly linked to the suspect’s former membership in a pro-unification PRC front organization; however, the PRC’s escalating rhetoric against Taiwan likely played a contributing role in radicalizing this individual.   

[1] For further background on the CPPRC, see: John Dotson, “The United Front Work Department in Action Abroad: A Profile of The Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China,” China Brief, Feb. 13, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/united-front-work-department-action-abroad-profile-council-promotion-peaceful-reunification-china/; and John Dotson, “The United Front Work Department Goes Global: The Worldwide Expansion of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China,” China Brief, May 9, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/the-united-front-work-department-goes-global-the-worldwide-expansion-of-the-council-for-the-promotion-of-the-peaceful-reunification-of-china/.