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A publisher plans to add an advisory to future copies of a book on China after one of the people quoted in the book was revealed to have been made up. The book is not supposed to be fiction. Rather, it's a work about China's rising economic clout. News that some quotes in it are fake is drawing extra scrutiny because the author is a top adviser in the Trump White House. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The book is called "Death By China," and it's co-authored by Peter Navarro, who directs the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. The book came out in 2011 and was turned into a political documentary the following year. The trailer shows a Chinese-made knife plunging into a red, white and blue outline of the United States, which proceeds to ooze blood. Navarro's dire warnings about China echo President Trump's own. Navarro appears regularly on NPR and elsewhere to defend Trump's trade policies. Here he is on Morning Edition just last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
PETER NAVARRO: It's intellectual property theft, the killing of Americans with made-in-China fentanyl - I mean, the sins literally go on and on.
HORSLEY: In his book, Navarro quotes a man named Ron Vara, saying only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon. That and other provocative quotes caught the attention of a professor in Australia named Tessa Morris-Suzuki, who eventually brought her concerns to Tom Bartlett, a senior writer with The Chronicle of Higher Education.
TOM BARTLETT: She's an Asia scholar and was working on an essay about the rather heated rhetoric of Peter Navarro toward China.
HORSLEY: The professor asked Bartlett to help her figure out, who is Ron Vara? After some digging, they determined there is no such person. Peter Navarro just made him up.
BARTLETT: Ron Vara is an anagram of Navarro.
HORSLEY: In an email, Navarro acknowledges that Ron Vara is a whimsical device he adopted for purely entertainment value. The character appears in half a dozen of Navarro's books dating back to 2001. Navarro defends the ruse, saying Vara was never used improperly as a source of facts, and he calls it refreshing that somebody finally figured out an inside joke that's been hiding in plain sight for years. But one of Navarro's co-authors, former White House economist Glenn Hubbard, says he wasn't in on the joke, and he told Bartlett he was not amused. Bartlett says neither was Professor Morris-Suzuki.
GLENN HUBBARD: As she put it, the joke wears very thin when you get to certain statements about China and the Chinese people that are quite negative. Ron Vara says things that are pretty over-the-top, and it's hard to construe them necessarily as whimsical in the way we normally use that word.
HORSLEY: Navarro's publisher was also in the dark. A spokesman says the publisher will add a note to future editions alerting readers that Ron Vara is not an actual person. But the episode's not likely to cause Navarro any trouble with his boss, though. Trump famously invented his own fictional spokesman, John Barron, in the 1980s. Internet wags have been joking this week perhaps Barron could offer some PR advice to the newly unmasked Ron Vara.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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