When I think of petitioning in the UK, I think of walking around some town centre on a Saturday, hearing someone on a megaphone ranting how they are 'against' something (war, capitalism, cuts etc), then turning towards the noise and seeing a bunch of Trots standing around a stall trying to sell papers and getting people to sign a petition that goes nowhere. In China though, something as harmless as a petition can see you face years inside one of the 'black jails'.
I'm sure many of you reading from the UK have witnessed the scene I described before and probably ignore it most of the time. The so called 'petitions' are no more than information gathering exercises for some Trot group to use for later harassment into coming to some meeting about how they will build a revolutionary party that will triumph against capitalism and all you have to do is buy their paper and go to their meetings to help bring this about :groucho:
There are other kinds of petitioning though. You might get a charity or NGO type of group getting you to sign a more legitimate petition that actually attempts to put some pressure on a government or business i.e. the petition is delivered to someone who is seen as responsible for the issue they are petition against.
Then there's the increasingly used online petitions, such as the government e-petition website, where you can set up a petition on an issue, spread it around all your online friends, who you hope will pass it on and get the issue talked about in parliament if it reaches a certain number of signatures.
I think as anarchists, libertarian communists, revolutionary socialists etc, we see that these petitions never really achieve much but we may sign these occasionally as it only takes a couple of minutes of our time. And it could lead to a bit more exposure for an issue we care quite a lot about ('every little helps' as our favourite corporate supermarket tell us).
Because of the little threat petitions cause to the status quo, those petition pushers are seen as quite harmless and are generally 'tolerated' by both those they are campaigning against and those who they are trying to get to sign the petition.
Compare this to what happens in China
In 2000, Zhao Zhenjia had to have 3 years of 're-eduaction through labour' for his petitioning of the Chinese authorities since the 70s, to claim compensation for wrongful imprisonment during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
Through this he learnt about the 'black jails' of China, where petitioners are regularly detained where they are beaten and harassed..
Zhao then realised he needed to bring more attention to this gross violation of people's basic human right of protest, so he led many journalists to see for themselves what the black jails were. This eventually led to the release of many petitioners detained in the prisons. Zhao was targeted by the authorities for this action and has now been sentenced to 18 months in a labour camp.
Another example (of many) is the story of Wang Xile who volunteered to help people write petitioning materials. Some of those he helped offered him money for his time, which he is believed to have refused. This offering of money has led authorities to fabricate a charge of fraud against him as an attempt to stop the thorn in their side that Wang, aged 62, had become to them.
The paranoia of the authorities in China is unreal. Petitioning done for very reasonable demands is met with severe sentences to try silence the smallest of dissent.
In the last few decades there has been huge economic growth in China, which has partly helped silence the majority of people in China (along with the authoritarian ruling). This growth can't last forever though. "Few informed economic observers believe that the current Chinese growth trend is sustainable; indeed, many believe that if China does not sharply alter course, it is headed toward a severe crisis." The likely popular dissent arising from this will be a whole new ball game. It has the potential to take what's been happening in Syria up to a new level...