A key source quoted frequently by US President Donald Trump's top trade adviser and anti-China author Peter Navarro has been outed as a fake and reprints of his book Death by China will contain a publisher's warning that it contains a fictional character.
The book, which accuses China of currency manipulation, deliberately harming Americans with dangerous consumer goods and a laundry list of other accusations came under renewed scrutiny this week following a report that one of its sources does not exist.
All reprints of Navarro's supposedly non-fiction Death by China will "alert" readers that the Harvard-educated economist Ron Vara quoted within its pages is faked, according to Pearson, which owns the book's publisher Prentice Hall.
The move follows a report by The Chronicle Review citing Death by China's co-author Greg Autry, that Vara was actually Navarro's "alter ego" and a fictionalised "everyman character".
"Pearson has strict editorial standards that apply to all of its publishing businesses and authors," Scott Overland, Pearson's director of media relations, said in an emailed response to the South China Morning Post.
"These standards are constantly evolving to ensure they remain rigorous and in line with current practices," Overland said. "We take any breaches of these standards very seriously and take swift action when one is identified.
"In this case, we are amending our current inventory and all future reprints and editions to alert readers that this book contains a fictional character."
To draw the connection between Vara and Navarro, The Chronicle Review, which focuses on the arts and academia, interviewed Tessa Morris-Suzuki, who had been examining references to Vara in Death by China and earlier works by Navarro.
Morris-Suzuki had been working on an essay about the language attributed to Vara in Navarro's writing, particularly its similarity to terms like "yellow peril", which had been common in political rhetoric a century ago, when she began trying to find details about Vara.
"I quickly discovered that (Vara) was invisible," Morris-Suzuki told the Post. "I think inventing a source like this is a problem, even if it was originally meant as a joke."
"Peter Navarro's books are supposed to be factual, and people are likely to trust their content because of his status as a university professor, and then later as an adviser to Trump," she said.
"The earliest quotations that he attributed to Vara were quite harmless little aphorisms, but the later ones make very strong claims about the dangers of Chinese products, which readers are likely to believe are coming from an expert."
News that Navarro quoted a fictional source in a non-fiction volume that largely encapsulates the rationale behind a trade war that Washington started with China 15 months ago has put the spotlight on one of the most divisive members of Trump's administration, who has been referred to as the president's "China muse".
Navarro has stood firm against other administration members, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has worked to forge a trade deal with Beijing.
As the most vocal proponent of the trade war, Navarro is under increasing pressure because of the stand-off that is now cutting into global economic growth and testing the patience of American corporations and farmers.
For example, Americans for Free Trade, a broad coalition of American industry associations formed a year ago in response to the bilateral trade war sent a letter to Trump in August, pleading with the president to delay any tariff increases.
The coalition comprises a wide range of businesses and interests including the American Petroleum Institute, the Telecommunications Industry Association " which counts AT&T and Apple as members " and the National Fisheries Institute.
The fictional source controversy has spawned a Ron Vara Twitter account with a profile photo ofNavarro and a quote from Death by China attributed to Vara: "Only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath".
The thesis that Navarro laid out in his book had come under criticism even before news that the book contains at least one faked source.
Despite serving as one of Trump's most trusted advisers on China, Navarro does not speak Mandarin and has spent little time in the country.
Numerous China experts quoted in a 2017 Foreign Policy profile spoke of Navarro as someone who made no effort to interact with specialists in the field, with one describing his work as full of "hyperbole, inaccuracies" and a "cartoonish caricature of China".
And while the self-directed film version of his book won the praise of Trump, who called it "right on" and urged others to see it, the Death by China documentary impressed few others: It tanked at US cinemas to the tune of around US$38,000 in box office takings, according to IMDB.
"I think the issue (of Ron Vara) highlights the need for US China policy to be based on very carefully researched and sourced information, not on quotations from invented people," Morris-Suzuki said.
The author of the book's foreword, California-based human rights activist Tang Baiqiao, said he was not aware at the time that there was a fictional character referenced in the book.
But Tang said there was a difference between fabricating an "ordinary person" and falsifying quotes from a person of influence.
"If it were the words of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping or some other really famous person, then there would be a problem " a very serious problem," said Tang. "(Navarro) did not fabricate the opinions of somebody famous, so I think there is effectively no real deception of the public."
Tang nonetheless said "it would have of course been better had he clearly indicated" the character was fictitious, provided the choice to use a pseudonym was not made out of consideration for a source's safety.
The White House did not immediately respond to a query about the change to further editions of Navarro's book.
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