Martin Jacques writes in the New Statesman:
Apart from its extraordinary longevity and bursts of efflorescent invention, the most striking feature of Chinese history is the fact that while Europe, following the fall of the Roman empire, fragmented into many parts, and ultimately into many nations, China was already moving in exactly the opposite direction and starting to coalesce. It is this unity that has ensured the continuity of its civilisation and also provided the size which remains so fundamental to China’s character and impact. Unity is one of the most fundamental propositions concerning Chinese history, if not the most fundamental.
If Europe provided the narrative and concepts that have informed not just western but world history over the past two centuries, so China may do rather similarly for the next century or so, and thereby furnish the world with an entirely different story and set of concepts: namely the idea of unity rather than fragmentation, that of the civilisation state rather than the nation state, that of the tributary system rather than the Westphalian system, a distinctive Chinese notion of race, and an organising political dynamic of centralisation/decentralisation rather than modernisation/conservatism.
See also a debate about the rise of China between Jacques and Will Hutton on the Guardian’s website.