As the Morrison government moves ever closer to the Trump administration’s approach to our region and the world, it is time to look more closely at the ‘expertise’ that underlies Trump’s China policy. It draws on some very curious sources.
During Scott Morrison’s much publicized visit to the United States in September, one crucial figure remained in the background. While the Australian Prime Minister met in private and appeared in public with figures like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Trump administration’s director of Trade and Manufacturing Peter Navarro was much less visible. This might seem odd, since China was at the top of the agenda to Morrison’s visit, and Navarro is a major architect of Trump’s China policy, sometimes described as the President’s ‘China Muse’. But perhaps it was not so strange after all. Too visible a presence might have highlighted some uncomfortable facets of the Trump view of global affairs, with which our Prime Minister is increasingly aligning himself.
Trump’s China guru Peter Navarro is a former professor of business at the University of California, Irvine, who had no research focus on China until the first decade of the twenty-first century. His best-known publications had been popular works on business and investment strategies, but from 2006 onwards he began to publish a series of books with lurid titles, focusing on the threat posed by China to the US and the world: The Coming China Wars (2006); Death by China (co-authored with Greg Autry 2011); and Crouching Tiger (2015). The contents are as sensational as the titles, often echoing rhetoric from the darkest days of the early twentieth century Yellow Peril panic. The first edition of The Coming China Wars, for example, describes China as ‘the world’s largest pirate nation’ and (in a chapter removed from the second edition) as the world’s major drug dealer, depicted in imagery oddly reminiscent of the world of Fu Manchu: ‘Afghan opium, often processed with Chinese precursor chemicals and shipped through Chinese gang networks, winds up as heroin in the dark alleyways and big city streets of nations around the world’ (p. 116). Chapters in Death by China refer to Chinese ‘hordes’ and bear titles such as ‘Death by Chinese Junk: Strangling Our Babies in their Cribs’.
Navarro is quick to insist that, despite their colourful language, his writings are ‘carefully researched’ and a corrective to the ‘non-fact-based rhetoric’ that has characterized debate on China (Coming China Wars, 1st ed., p. 211). But reading them, I couldn’t help recalling Charles Fisher’s early 1970s study of the historical background to Cold War ‘China containment’ policy. Fisher pointed out how deeply contemporary images of China were still influenced by older tendencies to view the Chinese (and other East Asians) ‘collectively through a haze of half-submerged folk memories of the Tartar hordes’.
And sensationalist imagery is not the only worrying thing about Navarro’s work. There is also a question of his sources.
Navarro’s likes to start chapter sections with dramatic italicized quotations which appear to come from China experts; but the status of the ‘expert’ is often left unexplained. One section of Death By China, for instance, begins with this striking quote: ‘“Import from China. Save Money. Lose your life” – Leslie LeBon’ (p. 32). Navarro fails to mention that Leslie LeBon was his wife, and is an architect and interior designer with no identifiable China or trade expertise.
Stranger still are Navarro’s repeated quotations from man named ‘Ron Vara’, whom he has cited at least fifteen times in five different books on China and on management and investment strategy. Vara is the source for some of Navarro’s most ferocious denunciations of China, among them ‘only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon, and a cell-phone battery into heart-piercing shrapnel’ (Death By China, p. 33). Ron Vara first made an appearance in a popular work which Peter Navarro published in 2001 on investment techniques – If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks (2001). Here Navarro described him, in strangely admiring tones, as a Harvard doctoral student who went on to become a brilliant stock trader and a ‘Dark Prince of Disaster’, making a fortune by predicting the stock market effects of natural and human made disasters such as the Chernobyl melt down.
My attempts to locate the original Ron Vara, though, quickly struck a brick wall. No person of that name was ever a doctoral student at Harvard, nor has any ‘Ron Vara’ ever published anything on China, trade, investment strategy or any related topic. By strange coincidence, however, Peter Navarro did receive his own doctorate in economics from Harvard in 1986, and ‘Ron Vara’ is, of course, an anagram of Navarro’s surname.
Perplexed about this problem, I shared questions about Navarro’s source with the Chronicle of Higher Education, to whom Navarro has now admitted that ‘Ron Vara’ is a fictional alter ego, invented (he says) as a private joke. So private that Navarro did not always choose to share it with his co-authors, at least one of whom is less than amused. Readers who have been terrified by invented quotations into believing that their Chinese-made products are about to kill them may also have difficulty getting the joke.
The rise of China poses huge and complex challenges to international diplomacy, and there are, of course, plenty of good reasons to criticize the Chinese government, particularly for its human rights record. But this makes it all the more important for China policy to be based on scrupulously-sourced information and thoughtful analysis, not on comic-book imagery and quotations from imaginary friends. Yet such is the quality of the know-how that underpins the China strategy of the most powerful nation on earth. Does Australia really want to follow the US down this path?
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Emeritus Professor in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.