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The shooter in Laguna Woods

Confronting Ethnonationalist Violence

Since the beginning of the year (as of this writing), there have been 216 mass shootings in the U.S.—defined as incidents where four or more people get shot. The shooting that targeted schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, was incident number 213, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The one that targeted Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo on May 14 is listed as incident 197.

In between those horrors was incident 202, at a Taiwanese church in Southern California. The shooter was an ethnic Chinese immigrant from the same island nation. Travis S explains that the shooter was motivated by hostilities within the Taiwanese diaspora—hostilities fueled by almost five decades of U.S.-backed dictatorship and the more-recent promotion of virulent ethnonationalism on the mainland.

On May 15, a Chinese ethnonationalist targeted the Irvine Presbyterian Taiwanese Church in Laguna Woods, California. He was heavily armed, with firearms, magazines of ammunition, and Molotov cocktails. He came prepared and secured the church’s doors with chains and superglue. Before killing one Taiwanese person and injuring five others—four critically—the shooter left a note in his car arguing that Taiwan was part of China. His hatred for a Taiwanese identity separate from the Chinese nation drove him to murder.

Most media sites have been singularly focused on the question of the shooter’s ethnicity. He was born in Taiwan, holds a Taiwanese passport, and served in compulsory military service in Taiwan, but U.S. cops fumbled in their initial press conference by referring to him as a Chinese immigrant. But the fact that the shooter was from Taiwan alone explains little without understanding the historical context of Taiwan. By grappling with the history of Taiwan as a site of multiple layers of occupation and settler-colonialism, we can begin to understand the shooter for what he was—a violent perpetrator of Chinese ethnonationalism.

On Taiwan

Taiwan is a multi-ethnic nation with citizens from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds: Indigenous, Hoklo and other Han Chinese, Japanese, Western. Many of these are rooted in colonial experiences as non-Taiwanese migrants settled on the island and successive powerholders occupied Taiwan all the way through modernity. The imperial occupations of the twentieth century fundamentally shaped the fabric of Taiwanese identities today—particularly since the nationalist Kuomintang party’s occupation of Taiwan when the island became the so-called “Republic of China” in 1945.

Capitalizing on the modern invention of Chinese nationhood, the Kuomintang (KMT) built a political machine on the Chinese mainland in the early twentieth century to throw off Japanese colonialism and emerge as a free and independent nation. They were joined by the Communists at first, supported by the Soviet Union, as a “united front” that included all ideological tendencies from revolutionary socialism to communism to proto-fascism. The KMT quickly did away with that by purging Communists in the thousands in immense bloodshed in 1927, which sent Communists into hiding and eventually led to Mao Zedong’s rise to power over the Communist Party.

Taiwanese protest Kuomintang repression in Taipei on February 28, 1947. The KMT responded with a massacre of 18,000 to 28,000, foreshadowing the White Terror period of martial law from 1949 to 1992. No source information available.

As Maggie Clinton lays out in her book Revolutionary Nativism: Fascism and Culture in China, 1925-1937, the Kuomintang’s foundation was fascistic from its modern origins in the 1930s. The KMT built an ideology of the Chinese nation that was characterized by the nation itself (rather than, for example, the proletariat) being understood as the revolutionary unit. The KMT violently stamped out ideas that weren’t obedient to the Chinese nation. The Kuomintang sought to bring all people and cultural productions into a top-down Confucian patriarchal structure of state control and “unquestioning loyalty of social inferiors to superiors.” They implemented that mission not only through propaganda and the arms of dictatorship, but through paramilitary violence and assassinations by its footsoldiers: the Blue Shirts and CC Clique. The Blue Shirts murdered magazine editors who published letters condemning Nazism and violently targeted critics to support their ethnonationalist ethos of the Chinese nation.

When Mao’s army defeated the Kuomintang in 1949 and created the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chinese ethnonationalist party-state escaped to Taiwan and occupied the island while aiming to “recapture the mainland.” They were bankrolled by the United States. The Kuomintang rapidly transformed into yet another Cold War-era U.S.-backed dictatorship presiding over a grotesque military-industrial complex on occupied land. The Japanese were gone but had left behind a national bourgeoisie that spoke Japanese. They promptly lost social power as the Kuomintang consolidated its rule through martial law and an anti-communist White Terror that persecuted Taiwanese leftists and anti-colonial sympathizers for generations.

Chinese people who emigrated to Taiwan during this period formed a very different political group than much of the rest of Taiwanese people. They were labeled waishengren, as opposed to Taiwanese people who lived on the island before KMT occupation who became benshengren. As Mau-kuei Chang of Academica Sinica explained, “despite the diversity of social and economic backgrounds, the waishengren [showed] a strong and almost uniform tendency in opposing Taiwanese nationalism or Taiwan independence.”

Meanwhile, national consciousness increasingly developed as part of the wider democratic, anti-colonial movement against the Kuomintang, even though Taiwanese nationhood’s roots ran even deeper into the Taiwanese soil that still remembered Japanese imperialism. The fault lines between waishengren and benshengren were starkly laid bare in two, almost-polar opposite, understandings of the Taiwanese future.

Pro-democracy demonstration in March 1990 by the Wild Lily student movement. Photo by Bubbha.

The end of the Kuomintang’s one-party rule unleashed a flood of new ideas, from new literatures to new identities rooted in the celebrations of Taiwan as a multicultural democracy free from the enforced uniformism of Chinese ethnonationalism. Younger Taiwanese generations, in particular, have increasingly come to identify just as Taiwanese—even if they generally prefer the peaceful status quo to independence; and even as the looming mainland constantly threatens to complete the Kuomintang’s dream of uniting the “Chinese nation” by recolonizing Taiwan through annexation. The fault lines between waishengren and benshengren have similarly blurred as newer generations of Taiwanese people increasingly understand themselves as members of a pluralistic nation.

The greatest triumph for the Taiwanese anti-colonial movement was the establishment of vibrant and pluralist democracy on the island beginning in the early 1990s and celebrated with the first democratic election in 1996. Democracy not only meant an end to U.S.-backed dictatorship and colonial occupation of the Kuomintang but also a way forward to reconciliation of Taiwan’s many groups. Finally, the Left could organize without the anticommunist hysteria and blood-soaked colonial violence that hounded it for generations.

The Chinese ethnonationalist ideology

The attack on Taiwanese people was motivated by the rise of Chinese ethnonationalism and its particular expression in a U.S. context. . While this exclusionary ideology has existed since the beginning of Chinese nationhood—dating from the dynastic centralism that characterized imperial rule over what is now China and that treated all marginal peoples as barbarians —it is far from the only kind of national consciousness. The Chinese nation has been articulated by thinkers throughout modern Chinese history in dramatically different ways. Many conceive of the Chinese nation as diverse, multinational, multiethnic. Communist understandings of the Chinese nation were particularly divergent, as were the early comprehensions of China when “China” first entered the Chinese language.

Now, the ways that the People’s Republic of China politicizes the Chinese nation for state projects resembles that of their old arch-enemy, the Kuomintang. Like the Kuomintang, the PRC invests in and commits to Confucian structures that reinforce patriarchal hierarchies and conservative authoritarian rule. Mao Zedong was responsible for raising the status of Lu Xun (1881-1936) as the most important revolutionary thinker in Chinese history, but the state that Mao spawned now engages in all the practices Lu Xun most hated. In fact, Lu Xun himself wrote that the right-wing Confucian ideology, which characterizes the old U.S.-backed KMT and modern PRC, was a scheme for controlling the state that was “made in the interests of those who ruled the masses—that is, those who wielded power; it gave no thought to the interests of the masses themselves.”

Beyond expansion of neo-Confucian ideological mechanisms to maintain state control, ideas that are antithetical to communism and other liberatory projects, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ramped up increasingly aggressive ethnonationalist rhetoric to justify imperialist state expansion over other peoples—most immediately Hong Kongers and Taiwanese, even as it has tightened internal control over its colonial holdings in Tibet and Xinjiang. National security and protection of the Chinese nation are used to justify severe repression of identities that diverge from the hegemonic Chinese ethnonationalist one while Taiwan, in particular, is a foundational piece of the Chinese imperialist project. Dr. Wen Liu notes that,

“Beijing’s pro-unification campaign has been sending out dehumanising languages such as ‘annihilating the people and saving the island’ and dismissing the Taiwanese independence movement as a violent separatist crime.”

Liu Mingfu has argued the “China Dream” of President Xi Jinping is nothing but the manifestation of the Chinese party-state as the world’s dominant power, which is predicated on conquering Taiwan.

The Chinese neo-Maoist New Left, whose virulence has a symbiotic and dialectical relationship with the PRC’s ethnonationalist state propaganda, contributes to the aggression.

The Chinese Communist Party seeks to monopolize its role as the political state of the entire Chinese nation as it conceives of the nation, which erases the identities of colonized people and nationalities, as well as exerts its arms over the diaspora through surveillance and ethnonationalist fervor among those who identify with the Chinese nation under the CCP.

Left-wing Chinese ethnonationalism in the US today

The ways in which Taiwan’s democratization has finally allowed for greater peaceful integration of all Taiwanese identities makes the arguments of Chinese ethnonationalist diaspora groups like the Qiao Collective especially absurd. The Qiao Collective is a largely-online propaganda collective with little organizing base that has built a presence on the anglophone Left by using anti-imperialist language to whip up support for reactionary causes. Unfortunately, a generation of newly radicalizing leftists is deeply vulnerable to Qiao’s propagated understanding of China and the Asia-Pacific due to lack of understanding of the region’s imperialist dynamics or the diasporas’ nuances. In the aftermath of the attack on the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, Qiao wrote on Twitter that “a reminder that if support for [Taiwanese political tendencies that are progressive or favor pluralistic Taiwan] is a precondition for being Taiwanese, that means Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples, who majority vote KMT, aren’t really Taiwanese.”

First, the argument that support for pluralistic Taiwan somehow excludes indigenous people intentionally misleads readers. Equating support for a pluralistic Taiwan with Taiwanese-ness does not exclude Kuomintang supporters themselves. Taiwanese pluralism is just that: pluralism. A Taiwan where people are free to embrace their own unique identities and stories leaves room for all ethnicities on the island. And while certain elements in the history of the anti-colonial movement as well as the broad swathe of political parties that identify more as Taiwanese than Chinese narrowly defined Taiwanese, the main arbiter of ethnonationalist politics in Taiwanese domestic politics has always been the Kuomintang.

The Kuomintang historically suppressed all forms of Taiwaneseness that did not conform to Chinese national obedience. The Kuomintang’s ethnonationalism sought to control Taiwanese identities including that of waishengren, benshengren, as well as that of Indigenous peoples. Taiwan’s pluralism of today, wherein waishengren can finally embrace their own legitimate Taiwaneseness, emerged from the political struggle against the Kuomintang and its exclusionary ethnonationalism. And even though many Indigenous people vote for the Kuomintang, electoralism is only the tip of the iceberg of complex politics. The KMT wiped out a plethora of Indigenous practices and languages in the interest of “the Chinese nation” under martial law. The reason Indigenous Taiwanese tend to vote for the Kuomintang is the maintenance of the fuwuzhan that the KMT established directly after occupying the island, which marginally improved Indigenous livelihoods more than any other colonizing force’s occupation of the island up till that point had. The fuwuzhan equipped the dictatorship with the ability to institutionalize itself in Indigenous communities.

The Kuomintang’s effort to bring Indigenous people under state control by offering minimal welfare should not be understood as anything but the Kuomintang serving the role of client state and national bourgeoisie within the framework of U.S. imperialism. The fuwuzhan were the Kuomintang’s cynical divide-and-rule mechanism to prevent Indigenous challenges to its power as an occupying force. Cementing power through welfarist mechanisms is a tried-and-true tactic for the stability of the dictatorship. And since the Kuomintang was monetarily propped up by the United States as “Free China,” the welfarism of the fuwuzhan also allowed the U.S. imperialist framework to continue to be sustained on the occupied island of Taiwan. The Kuomintang focused on gaining Indigenous support to the net benefit of its benefactor the United States.

Crucially, many Taiwanese Indigenous people have vocally opposed the ethnonationalist attempt to include them within the Chinese nation. They even wrote an open letter to Xi Jinping in 2019 to make that exact point. The representatives of the Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan within the Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee wrote in their open letter (translated from Chinese), “as we have lived on Taiwan, this piece of our motherland, for more than six thousand years, Indigenous people are not an ethnic minority in the Chinese nation.” The letter further hones in on that point in stating that “Taiwan, as the traditional territory of Indigenous people and ancestral land that Indigenous people have guarded for generation after generation, is not Chinese territory.” That opposition illustrates that the mere fact that Indigenous people vote for the Kuomintang should not be conflated with Indigenous support for Chinese ethnonationalist ideology.

The Qiao Collective’s selective weaponization of Indigenous people’s complex political identity and history to oppose Taiwanese pluralism amounts to erasing Taiwanese experiences of settler-colonialism. Qiao’s argument intentionally misleads readers to ignore the anti-Indigenous history of the Kuomintang while also implying support for a U.S.-backed dictatorship ideologically rooted in fascism. And in choosing between confronting U.S. imperialism and supporting ethnonationalism, Qiao chose to support ethnonationalism.

Qiao has no real interest in Indigenous politics in Taiwan. Indigenous people are worthwhile only as far as Qiao can throw them into their project to sow Chinese ethnonationalist ideas in the U.S. Left.

Chinese ethnonationalism and the Taiwanese diaspora

Unfortunately, the positive shift towards pluralism in democratic Taiwan itself is not mirrored in the Taiwanese diaspora. The Taiwanese-American shooter who targeted the Taiwanese-American church engaged in physical assault and mass shooting in the name of the Chinese nation. As Dr. Wen Liu from Academica Sinica wrote,

“The Irvine shooting shows that Taiwan hasn’t overcome its internal ethnic conflicts. While being waishengren or benshengren is mostly a nonissue among the young, for first and second generations, the Chinese supremacist ideology is far from dead and can be intensified in diaspora.”

The shooter was a virulent supporter of the most right-wing elements of the Kuomintang’s new iteration as a dictatorship-turned-competitive party in a democratic system. The political elements that the Laguna Woods shooter supported are not only heirs to the history of the Kuomintang as a wielder of fascist political violence, but akin to other contemporary ethnonationalist militants who have attacked journalists and Taiwanese student demonstrators.

In attacking the church, the ethnonationalist shooter struck at the heart of the Taiwanese identity that survived the violent suppression of Chinese ethnonationalism. Presbyterian churches hold a place of significance to Taiwanese people who suffered under Kuomintang oppression. Presbyterian churches historically supported and sheltered Taiwanese people; they were refuges for the use of Taiwanese language. Under the Kuomintang’s dictatorial rule, use of Taiwanese and Taiwan’s Indigenous languages was persecuted and suppressed. The Chinese nation was seen as paramount. Taiwan’s multicultural diversity, which stood in stark contrast to a project of instilling “a Chinese identity in Taiwan’s hearts and minds,” was a threat to the Kuomintang’s rule. The KMT deployed “language police” to ensure students did not speak Taiwanese and, if caught, students were fined or publicly embarrassed by being forced to wear signs around their necks indicating their crime. But at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, there is freedom to celebrate Taiwanese identity as benshengren: the one hundred church members attacked by the shooter worshiped in Taiwanese, not Chinese.

The ethnonationalist shooter also directly targeted Taiwanese community in the diaspora. Jocelyn Chung, a Taiwanese-American writer and artist, wrote about how one church in Orange County paved the way for her family to integrate into Taiwanese community in Southern California. “For many immigrant communities, churches, temples, and mosques … are the heartbeat of our communal flourishing,” said Chung, listing example after example of community resources from providing family phone numbers to emergency contacts. At the Irvine Presbyterian Church, Taiwanese residents learned how to use iPads and about Taiwanese pop music, but the Chinese ethnonationalist shooter ensured “that peace they felt in their borrowed sanctuary … was forever shattered.”

U.S. state power and the PRC’s expansionist project

Brian Hioe, a founding editor of left-wing New Bloom Magazine in Taiwan, has observed that the attack on the Taiwanese church seems “characteristic of American gun culture, and American culture of mass shootings.”

That is certainly true. But understanding the attack only as another instance of U.S. political violence hides the truly terrible reality that the attack was the weaponization of Chinese ethnonationalism by someone who had previously been authorized by the U.S. state to use coercion and violence.The shooter was a second-generation waishengren immigrant who was a landlord and was licensed to carry a gun as a security guard in Las Vegas. The experience of these coercive social positions likely informed the shooter as much as the U.S. culture of mass shootings.

In other words, the ethnonationalist shooter the murdered who targeted the Irvine Presbyterian Taiwanese Church must be understood as a perpetrator of ethnonationalist violence within the context of U.S. state violence and imperial decline, in all of its aspects. The origins of the shooter’s extremism lay in Chinese ethnonationalism as it was practiced by the U.S.-backed settler-colonization of Taiwan, but the Kuomintang is not the main actor drumming up ethnonationalism anymore. Rather, the main actor of the exclusionary ethnonationalism is the Chinese Communist Party, which now presides over an apparatus of state control threatening the self-determination of other peoples in the name of the Chinese nation—just like their KMT predecessors. But, the shooter is more than just an empty weapon of Chinese ethnonationalism and the PRC’s imperialist project manifesting in interpersonal violence. Instead, the shooter was enabled by his own background of using coercive, state-authorized power that he exercised as a landlord and as an armed security guard.

That is the reality we have to grapple with. That is the true extent of the horror that unfolded in California. That is the real takeaway from the loss and irrevocable change in the lives of Taiwanese community members who sought nothing more than to build new and better futures where they could safely embrace their own Taiwaneseness.

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Travis S. View All

Travis S. is a community organizer who has been active in social and political movements in the United States, the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan. He is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and a harassment and grievance officer for his chapter.