Sept. 23 was a hazy day in Hong Kong. It's unlikely that Sarah Palin could have gazed across the city's harbor, past the mountains of the New Territories, and spied mainland China in the distance. Secluded inside the Grand Hyatt hotel, behind a tight cordon of security and a sea of hobnobbing fund managers, she may not even have seen much of Hong Kong itself.
Palin was in the Big Lychee on her first visit to Asia, delivering her first major speech abroad at a high-profile conference of bankers and regional finance executives. A reported 1,100 delegates crammed into the ballroom to hear her champion "commonsense conservatism" and Reaganomics and offer commentary on Asian geopolitics. But if this luncheon keynote address was the former Alaska governor's first credential-burnishing step toward a 2012 presidential bid, it was made with the pesky media well at arm's length. All press were barred from the event, reportedly at the request of Palin's camp. Details of her remarks have been pieced together from interviews with delegates who were in attendance, tweets from inside the ballroom and a few private recordings of the proceedings that were obtained by news agencies. Neither spokespersons for Palin or CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, the investment firm sponsoring the conference, were willing to disclose Palin's itinerary in Asia.
Though dubbed "a conversation with Sarah Palin," the event turned out to be more of a monologue. She spoke for almost 90 minutes, all the way to 2 p.m., when the session was supposed to end. As an attendee said while walking out, "she clearly wanted to keep talking so there'd be no questions." The moderator did ask her a few questions, but that part of the program lasted less than 10 minutes.
She did make a few memorable pronouncements, for example, "I don't like excessive partisanship." Addressing the financial crisis, she declared there was no need for new regulation: "Lack of government wasn't the problem. Government policies were the problem. The markets didn't fail. Government failed." Palin reportedly called for the elimination of capital gains and estate taxes, decried state overspending and, supposedly without mentioning U.S. President Barack Obama by name, criticized his efforts to widen government involvement in health care. She rattled off a few terms of financial art but did not address the issues facing the markets for long, saying, "That's for next time."
Palin did not shy away from addressing Asia and its politics. She hit the Republican talking points on China, warning against protectionism and expressing concern about China's military buildup. "We hope for China to rise responsibly," a delegate posting to Twitter live from the speech quoted Palin as saying. She also spoke of the U.S.'s historic role in securing prosperity and stability in the region and expressed a conviction that the U.S. could help steer Beijing toward democracy.
Still, according to many delegates, Palin's home state of Alaska dominated the talk. "She rambled on about the place for ages," says an Indian banker with a major U.S. firm. "Palin even talked about Alaska's land bridges with Asia and how animals once went across." Based on a recording it reviewed, the Wall Street Journal says Palin invoked her husband Todd's Eskimo heritage as a sign of shared "bloodlines" between the continents.
Palin's audience was a mostly sympathetic throng of high-flying executives and fund managers from more than 32 countries, responsible for some $10 trillion worth of assets among themselves. While they welcomed her support for strong free-market policies, some of the executives in the crowd were not entirely convinced. "[Palin] displayed a mixture of commonsense prudence and a bit of naiveté when it comes to finance," says a London-based fund manager (most delegates spoke anonymously due to the confidentiality policies of their companies). "Surely, we know now not all things are better left to the market."
After stepping down as governor earlier this year, Palin has allegedly received more than 1,000 speaking invitations. Some speculate that she was well remunerated by CLSA, though the company spokeswoman, Simone Wheeler, refused to comment on the question of a fee. The CLSA Investors' Forum has a rich tradition of bringing in leading global and often American figures, such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Preceding Palin as top-of-the-bill speakers on Monday and Tuesday were the Harvard financial historian Niall Ferguson and Robert Fisk, a veteran British correspondent in the Middle East. "Our speakers do not fit a specific formula," says Wheeler. "We just want to present our forum with newsmakers, with people who think outside the box. We want to air their virgin views."
But as the foreign press flapped about Palin (and the lack of access to her), few in the local Cantonese media or most Hong Kongers, in general seemed to care. Few representatives from Hong Kong's tabloid-driven press stood in the forlorn journalist pen outside the hotel. Shown a picture of Palin, a woman surnamed Ng, who operated a food stand near the Grand Hyatt, professed to not know who she was. "If she is rich and famous, then maybe she goes shopping nearby," said Ng from behind her counter. "Afterward, she can come eat my fishballs."