Economist Peter Navarro. Photo: Courtesy of University of California-Irvine
Economist Peter Navarro. Photo: Courtesy of University of California-Irvine

Why would a Harvard PhD economist and tenured university professor make ridiculous assertions about China that no self-respecting economist would claim ownership of?

This question is hanging over prominent China-basher and director of the White House National Trade Council, Peter Navarro.

I went for answers to Professor John Graham, who had been Navarro’s colleague at the University of California at Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business. He joined the faculty in 1989, the same year as Navarro. Now that Navarro has left to join the Trump administration, Graham has taken over Navarro’s course on China.

“I am not sure I know why,” Graham said. “In sum, the three books he’s written about China are xenophobic trash. They contain some truths, but Navarro cherry-picks the data to prove his points. Ultimately it’s nothing but yellow journalism.”

Graham went on to say, “Navarro has no first-hand familiarity of China, doesn’t show any understanding of China and doesn’t speak Chinese. When asked how many times he’s been to China, he evades and doesn’t answer.”

A former UC Irvine professor and colleague confirmed this, saying, “He generally avoided people who actually knew something about the country.”

Needed help to teach a course on China

After publishing several China-related books, Navarro decided to create his own course on China relations, named “China and the Global Order.” When Benjamin Leffel, a China specialist and sociology PhD student at UC Irvine, became aware of Navarro’s writings, he reached out to him and questioned his views.

The meeting led to Navarro asking Leffel to act as the counterweight in his China class. Leffel created most of the syllabus using respected academic material in China studies, Navarro’s contribution being his own book and documentary.

Leffel wanted to throw out Navarro’s materials; Navarro did not agree. (After Navarro joined the Trump administration, Leffel and Graham discarded his material from the syllabus.) Despite such a frontal disagreement, Navarro kept Leffel as his instructor and teaching assistant, who in fact did most of the teaching – and who exhaustively corrected the falsehoods and exaggerations found in Navarro’s material.

I asked Leffel how he would summarize his experience working with Navarro. He said: “It was a tense but successful exercise in working with someone with radically different views, something we need now more than ever.”

Graham speculated that perhaps Navarro was motivated by TV exposure; his books and video documentary were calculated to get him media attention. That was an insightful observation.

Peter Navarro – Gordon Chang wanna-be?

Indeed, Navarro may have taken a page from Gordon Chang’s playbook. Chang published The Coming Collapse of China in 2001. In view of China quadrupling the size of its economy since that publication, Chang should have eggs all over his face.

Instead, Navarro can see that his friend became a media darling and is frequently interviewed about his views on China. The so-called fake-news people, those we would otherwise consider as mainstream media, know that they can always count on Chang to give a colorful and negative point of view about China.

Navarro has taken China-bashing as the road to success to another level. He writes better than Chang, is more telegenic and has resources to tap that are not available to Chang. The Nucor Foundation gave him US$1 million to turn his book into a documentary, which he then premiered from coast to coast in the US.

Chang attended those premieres and celebrated with selfies taken with Navarro. Sometime between Chang’s book in 2001 and Navarro’s Death by China in 2011, they have become fast friends.

To celebrate their friendship, Navarro even wrote an article in defense of Chang called “The revenge of Gordon Chang and The Coming Collapse of China?” The piece also appeared under a different title in The National Interest on May 7, 2016.

When it comes to China, Navarro is not driven by facts and has no desire to write with authenticity and scholarship. To my knowledge, none of his papers on China have been published in peer-reviewed, prestigious academic or professional journals.

During the 2016 presidential election, he co-authored with Wilbur Ross an economic plan for the upcoming administration of Donald Trump. A public letter from 370 economists, including 19 Nobel laureates, labeled the plan an unmitigated disaster.

Despite such condemnation, Navarro now stands as the key economic whisperer to President Trump.

A five-time loser in politics

In his earlier life, Navarro ran unsuccessfully for political office. He came within a whisker of becoming the mayor of San Diego, the second-largest city of California. That was his first attempt running for public office, and he led the all-party primary field with 38.2% of the votes.

In the general-election runoff in 1992, it was his election to lose – and lose he did. Running as an independent, he launched vicious attacks on his Republican opponent, Susan Golding, reducing her to tears in the last televised debate. The voters turned against Navarro.

He would run for various offices in San Diego four more times. Each time, his campaign tactics were nastier than the previous. Mudslinging was his standard procedure.

When Navarro was first announced as joining the Trump administration, The San Diego Union Tribune published a pointedly hostile review of his past association with the city. The headline read, “How many San Diego elections did Trump trade adviser Navarro lose?”

Charlie Cook, a nationally recognized political analyst, met Navarro once and vividly remembers him as one of the most obnoxious political candidates he has ever met. In one election post-mortem, Navarro admitted, “I don’t have any concerns at all about making stuff up about my opponent that isn’t exactly true.”

When asked why he began to pay attention to China, his reply was that it was that he had noticed some of his students were losing jobs to China. Factory workers might lose jobs when plants shut down, but MBA students don’t lose jobs to China. Nice try, Peter.

The news media are in part responsible for enabling a five-time political loser to join the inner sanctum of Trump’s White House. When Navarro spouts nonsense, it’s the responsibility of the media to challenge his assertions rather than giving him a free pass.

Now Navarro is part of the team steering US economic policy. It’s too early to tell whether he will be a mere transitory blip in history or an unmitigated disaster as feared by many. If Trump really listens to him, only the Almighty can save us. Trump has just announced tariff duties on up to $60 billion worth of goods from China. That’s not an encouraging development.

George Koo

George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield's, a novel green building platform.

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