After a hectic week at the excellent Association of Commonwealth Universities’ Executive Heads conference in Hong Kong, where I fear that my views on the future of higher education might have been a little too provocative, we arrived back in Beijing on Saturday. Another glorious day on Sunday tempted us to walk north of the Peking University Campus and explore the vast 350 hectare Yuanmingyuan Park, or Garden of Perfect Splendour. We managed to escape the crowds, and wandered leisurely around the lakes and ruins of what was once one of the most splendid of all Palaces and Gardens – known in its heyday as the “Garden of Gardens” and the “Versailles of the East”. The summer resort of the Emperors, it reflected the sumptuosness of the Qing court in the 18th and 19th centuries, but was looted and burned by a British and French force in 1860 during the Opium Wars. This wanton destruction, albeit in retaliation for the torture and execution of a small group of British and Indian troopers who had been sent to negotiate with the Chinese, is widely criticised as having been barbaric, and an act of vandalism. Victor Hugo thus described it as ‘Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain”. It is now difficult to imagine the scale and beauty of the Palaces and Gardens, but a model gives some indication of their magnificence and extent. Today, in places where their predecessors were never permitted to set foot, thousands of people now share picnics, enjoy the spring blossom, fly kites and just walk amongst the ruins, reflecting on their past glory and on the changing balances of political power throughout history. Having the previous weekend visited the New Summer Palace which was built to replace Yuanmingyuan, our visit to the Old Summer Palace gave rise to many complex reflections.