Peter Navarro has an imaginary friend named "Ron Vara"

Tessa Morris-Suzuki views Navarro’s rhetoric on China with alarm. An emeritus professor of Japanese and Korean history at the Australian National University, she has been working on an essay examining the heated language that Navarro employs, noting its similarity to talk of a “yellow peril” at the turn of the 20th century.

In her research, she kept running across a name she didn’t recognize: Ron Vara. Navarro has quoted Vara a dozen or so times in six books, usually as an epigraph before a chapter. In Death by China, published in 2011, Vara offers this sweeping assessment of the country’s roughly 1.4 billion people: “Only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon, and a cellphone battery into heart-piercing shrapnel.”

So who is Ron Vara? He didn’t seem to exist except in the work of Peter Navarro. The most information Morris-Suzuki could find came from Navarro’s 2001 book, If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks (McGraw-Hill). In that book, which lays out Navarro’s plan for how to profit by paying attention to bad news, the reader learns that Vara was a “struggling doctoral student in economics” at Harvard in the mid-1980s, slogging away on a thesis about utilities regulation.

Morris-Suzuki, now in full detective mode, sent emails to some colleagues at Harvard, but no one could turn up any record of Vara.