China’s Shadow in the Laguna Hills Killings

The accused shooter belonged to a shadowy pro-Beijing front group

From SpyTalk, May 18, 2022, https://www.spytalk.co/

The Laguna Hills, California church shooting on Sunday highlights a secretive and little-known arm of the Chinese Communist Party operating in the United States.

It was one of two shootings last weekend, both horrific. The worst of the two has been on everyone’s lips: at a Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where 10 people were killed and three injured when a lone, white-supremacist gunman opened fire at customers and employees. 

But in Laguna Hills, the great geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China played out in grisly fashion, albeit on a smaller, blood-soaked stage. The killer seems to have been driven to rage by a pro-communist fervor abetted by a secretive Beijing-backed group.

“It appears this tragic incident was fueled by politically motivated hate, and that is something we do not tolerate,” Don Barnes, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner, said. The alleged shooter, David Chou, 58, left a note in his car saying that “Taiwan is not a country.” 

Everyone involved in the Laguna Hills incident was of the same origin and ethnicity: Chinese from Taiwan. Chou’s rampage was stopped only when one brave man, Dr. John Cheng, 52, threw a chair at the man and others tied him with electrical cords. Cheng died on the scene. Five others were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. 

Various Chinese communist news sites, including 163.com (also see here) acknowledged the incident and the assailant’s identity but then turned to anti-Taiwan rhetoric and the Chinese Communist Party’s oft-used victim narrative—that it’s constantly under assault by the U.S and its proxies and can’t be blamed for the occasional violent act by an aggrieved fervent supporter.  

Turns out there’s more to it than that.

Ties That Bind

Unsurprisingly, mainland Chinese news items do not mention that Chou belongs, or belonged, to the Las Vegas chapter of the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification, or NACPU (中国和平统一促进会)—a Beijing front group. (The name of the organization varies in English on different websites but the Chinese name is consistent). 

Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-government-backed nonprofit news organization, was one of the first English-language sources to explore Chou’s connection to the group in detail. Another organization, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, created by Congress, had also taken note of the NACPU’s role in overseas Chinese front groups in a 2018 report

During the Trump Administration, the State Department designated the NACPU a “foreign mission,” as it did earlier with the Confucius Institutes in the U.S., and alleged that it is controlled by the CCP’s United Front Work Department. That is the party organization, known for clandestine operations abroad, that specializes in cultivating relations with non-communist organizations considered friendly to Beijing. 

photo has emerged showing Chou holding a microphone in front of a banner with two slogans at a NACPU Las Vegas event. The most relevant at the top, in red, reads, “Seize the opportunity to give chase, quickly and violently annihilate the (Taiwan) independence evil spirits” (顺势速追击, 迅猛灭独妖, shùnshì sù zhuījí, xùnměng miè dú yāo).

That kind of language goes back to the 20th-century Chinese revolution and civil war, which ended with the 1949 Communist victory that drove the old Nationalist government from the mainland to Taiwan. Its successors survive today as the Republic of China, shunned diplomatically by most of the world’s governments in favor of the People’s Republic and its “big emerging market.” The two sides remain at bitter odds: Beijing simultaneously trumpets an inevitable final victory that brings Taiwan—a “renegade province”—under its control and fearfully rages against the possibility that the island’s leaders will declare themselves forever independent. A strong plurality on Taiwan does not wish to join the mainland, but a small minority would welcome rule by Beijing.

In my observation over the past several decades, Chinese people from the mainland and those from Taiwan who live in the United States normally treat each other with respect, often become friends, worship together in temples and churches, and sometimes intermarry. Worldwide, however, they establish separate student groups: the pro-Beijing Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and the Taiwan Student Organizations (TSAs). Since Xi Jinping came to power, CSSAs outside of China have been pushed to maintain closer links to the nearest PRC diplomatic post, and reports have emerged of CSSAs keeping tabs on the loyalty of Chinese students and reporting on them to Chinese officials. 

Guns and Ammo

There was a particularly American flavor to the Chinese rivalry that erupted in Laguna Hills. Chou, an evidently disturbed individual inspired by an extreme variety of pro-Beijing ideology, was able to legally purchase firearms to carry out the attack on his fellow immigrants and their families. According to police, he had purchased two 9mm pistols in Las Vegas and planted Molotov cocktails in the church. It was a volatile combination, no surprise given the surge of mass shootings in American life and Beijing’s mounting, violence-tinged rhetoric against Taiwan under Xi Jinping’s leadership. 

It’s doubtful that the NACPU instigated Chou to perpetrate such a blatant, self-incriminating act. The CCP would likely see such an act as antithetical to its interests. But the poorly understood NACPU is linked to the party’s shadowy United Front Work Department. It would behoove U.S. national security agencies to get a better grip on and ultimately regulate such secretive Chinese Communist activities in the U.S. Alas,  federal law enforcement has largely stumbled on this front, launching  misplaced prosecutions while complaining that it is overwhelmed by Chinese espionage cases. 

All this means that the U.S. needs to up its game. A better understanding, and coverage, of the NACPU might not have prevented the Laguna Hills tragedy, but there’s clearly a need for expediting awareness training of state and local police, and not just the feds,  on China’s nefarious activities, to include foreign area studies and language training for those who are interested and qualified.  That’s a big reach, but what’s the alternative? As tensions with China rise, being under-equipped to respond to Beijing’s worldwide espionage and influence offensive is no longer a viable option. 

As for the easy availability of weapons in the U.S., that’s a whole ‘nother story, as they say. And it’s getting more complicated by the week. Black citizens in Buffalo and elsewhere can be excused for wanting to arm themselves now. The parishioners of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church might now feel the same. Such an outcome only bodes ill for the future.

Subscribe to SpyTalk at https://www.spytalk.co/about

Author: mattbrazil_j6jhco

Matt Brazil is the co-author of Chinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer. He is a contributing editor at SpyTalk.co and a Research Fellow with the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC. Matt has worked as an industrial security professional, university lecturer, soldier, and diplomat. He is researching a second book on Beijing's espionage apparatus, tentatively entitled China's Secret Wars, from Mao to Now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.