The rise of China is the most-read news story of the last decade, according to new research published by Texas-based Global Language Monitor

You won’t be surprised to hear that for someone who earns his crust writing about China’s rise, this is gratifying news.

It’s also mildly surprising. In the news trade China is essentially a ‘glacier’ story – huge, unstoppable but moving in increments that only become discernible over time. Everyone registers China’s growing importance, but too often the drip-drip nature of the story keeps off the top of the news agenda.

And yet according to this research – based on tracking keywords on news and social networking sites – China’s rise has easily trumped what you could call ‘volcano’ stories: spectacular, erupting events such as Michael Jackson’s death, Barack Obama’s meteoric ascendancy to the presidency or the south Asian tsunami.

The research begs the question (and this not from the purely selfish perspective of the China hack interested in keeping his job) whether, in ten years time, a similar survey would find China still top of the news tree.

You might think, given China’s inexorable rise and the strains that is going to put on the emerging new world order, that China’s position as a story of global prominence is a no-brainer, but it’s worth remember that similar things were written about Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At that time papers like the Washington Post were seriously reviewing books entitled “The Coming War with Japan”, just as they are now reviewing “When China Rules the World” by Martin Jacques, but in the even the story never quite panned out.

(As an anecdotal measure of this, when I moved to New Delhi to open a new bureau for The Telegraph in 2004 – at the time ‘rising India’ was the new zeitgeist story – the bureau’s budget was allocated a cost-code number that had previously been used by the staff bureau last closed by the Telegraph. It’s identity? You guessed, Tokyo.) China’s sheer size will protect it from going the way of the Japan story – sucked into a deflationary morass – although bearish economists are already drawing comparisons between China’s investment-dependent economy and Japans in the 1980s.

Even so, some of the wilder takes on the China story – Western fears of its rising military, the actual ability of Chinese consumption to drive the world economy, China’s calls for the end of dollar hegemony – are presented with an imminence that is not justified by the numbers.

For all the hype and rapid progress of the last decade, the China story is still a relative glacier when you measure it in terms of growth in per capita incomes or numbers of aircraft carriers.

Of course, plotting scenarios for the China story over the coming decade is a favourite pastime of the China press corps, but it is an invidious business.

I think most people living here, based on the track record of the last 30 years, expect that China will continue its rise upwards. There will be some sharp peaks and troughs along the way – a property crash here, a riot there – but history will look back on a gradual embracing of economic and political reform. This is the ‘glacier’ scenario.

But there always remains the wild card of more extreme upheaval – the ‘volcano scenario’ – a fact which the Communist Party of China is well aware and explains its paranoid attitude to a population which has little apparent appetite for revolution.

I have just finished reading a wonderful book – Red China Blues by Jan Wong, a Canadian-Chinese journalist who arrived in China in 1972 as a starry-eyed student Maoist and is gradually disabused of her beliefs.

She returns in the mid-1980s to cover China for Canada’s Globe and Mail and gives a gripping account of the Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent massacre which takes up a large chunk of the second half of a deliciously self-knowing memoir.

What is striking in her account is how quickly those protests materialised.

Little more than a year before the PLA was gunning down students in the streets, Wong was interviewing pro-democracy activists like Wang Dan and finding them curiously out-of-touch and with only the fringiest of fringe support.

You could draw comparisons with today’s Charter 08 pro-democracy petitioners whose leader, Liu Xiaobo, remains in prison a year after his arrest facing a 15 year jail sentence. They are tiny minority.

It is, therefore, as hard to see a ‘colour revolution’ suddenly materialising in China in 2009 as it was for Jan Wong in 1988, but then history reminds us that events can move very quickly in China.

In 1989 it was high inflation and the petty restrictions of the Party that under-pinned the protests.

Today all seems rosy – incomes are rising and personal freedoms have expanded greatly – but it’s still possible to construct a perfect-storm scenario that is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Imagine: the year is 2012 and the world has entered a Great Depression. As in 1929, the stockmarket rallies of 2009 and 2010 have turned out to be horrible bear rallies.

After short-term success in avoiding financial catastrophe in 2008, the world’s governments are now drowning in debt.

The rising corporate profits that propped up those bear-rally stock markets were a chimera generated only by short-term cost-cutting that merely put millions out of work and dried up consumption even further. The hoped-for recovery in world demand never appeared.

As a result, the Chinese property and stock markets have also crashed, along with Chinese manufacturing (bloated with stimulus-driven overcapacity) triggering a power-struggle over the succession of a mortally weakened Hu Jintao.

The dollar has tanked, putting a massive dent in China’s forex reserves and China’s economic stimulus has unraveled, exposing a jobless recovery in which half of China’s (by then) 8m graduates a year can’t find jobs. (This is already a problem for third of China’s 6m graduates this year)

A disgruntled Chinese middle class (who’ve lost their shirts in property and stocks bubbles) start to openly question the fragile social contract between them and the ruling party who respond – typically – with further draconian controls on the press and internet. The people are further enraged.

As in Urumqi this year, when Han protestors took to the streets demanding the resignation of the local party boss, the people take to the streets en masse demanding reforms from the Party while, behind the gates of Zhongnanhai the arguments of 1989 over how best to respond play out all over again.

The students and middle classes are joined by thousands of ordinary workers who – though they might not quite put it in these terms – are fed up with the continuing falling share of wages to GDP, the rampant corruption, pollution and land-grabbing and the failure of a much-vaunted (but under-resourced) health care plan to deliver real social security.

It all seems highly fanciful – and is highly unlikely – but when you see how the Party is behaving at the moment, you could be forgiven for wondering if, when they look into the darker corners of their crystal balls, they don’t fear something akin to this.

– Peter Foster