Citizen Empowerment in Global Perspective

Workshop 6 July 2021 Report

By Sophie Figueiredo


The Exeter-Fudan Global Thought Network’s first workshop for the citizens’ empowerment and participation stream focused on showcasing and interrogating citizen empowerment in the 21st Century in both liberal and non-liberal contexts and from both normative and practice-oriented perspectives. It brought together academics from a variety of sub-disciplines ranging from public administration, political theory, comparative politics and international relations, with the aim of sharing ideas and research on citizen empowerment to bridge sub-disciplinary boundaries.

Session One

Chaired by Alice Mosely, the first session explored citizen empowerment in practice and gave participants the chance to showcase their research projects on a range of citizen empowerment tools in China.

Yuan Li and Yanjun Zhu presented their co-authored paper with Catherine Owen on how participatory budgeting and public deliberation in Shanghai exemplifies the new relationship between citizens, local state and the Chinese Communist Party, following reform and the opening-up period. They convincingly argued that participatory governance has supported the broader project of Party-building because it has served to legitimise Party ideology and enabled Party representative to manage and guide participation in alignment with the Party agenda.

Next, Samuel Hayat presented his paper on unrepresentative claims, which focuses on voluntary forms of association, organisation and mobilisation. Focusing on the French Yellow Vest movement of 2018-2019, he explores how recent popular movements have declined any representative mandate with individuals refusing to speak for anyone but themselves. These unrepresentative claims facilitate embodiment, allows people to speak not ‘for’ but ‘as’ someone.

Xuan Qin then presented her co-authored paper with Boagang He on the politics of authoritarian empowerment which she described as a disconnection between psychological empowerment and political empowerment, and which replaces collective action with public services that solve problems and address grievances. Xuan argued that the authoritarian empowerment strategy prevents citizens’ full empowerment by offering political power that can be transformed into orderly political engagement and empowerment.

The final participant was Emilie Frenkiel who, in contrast to Xuan Qin, asserted that participatory budgeting has opened-up the decision-making process in China to formerly excluded participants and bridge the gap between Party representatives, local officials and citizens. She has found that broadening participation in local decision-making has provided a channel for the people’s voice which has led to more predictable and comfortable lives and boosted trust in and the legitimacy of the Party.

These insightful and compelling papers stimulated a wide discussion over and comparison of citizen empowerment tools used in China and Europe. What united the views was that while citizens have been represented in social groups or by interests before, the institutionalised representation managed by the state or Party is no longer sufficient and citizens are demanding new channels of representation and participation in political affairs.

Session Two

The second session, chaired by Catherine Owen, a founder of the Network, explored theories of empowerment and considered its foundations on trust, direct and indirect forms of citizens’ involvement in decision-making and imagined ways to reinvigorate the empowerment project. Beginning with brief initial interventions from Dario Castiglione of the University of Exeter, Chunrong Liu of Fudan University and Yves Sintomer of Paris 8 University, participants were encouraged to participate in a more free-flowing group discussion. While all three had varying theories and prescriptions for the future of the empowerment project, all argued that the concept of empowerment requires further refinement.

Castiglione was more focused on the importance of language for how we conceptualise practices and empowerment. He argued for the value of drawing out a distinction between the state and a regime and to analyse these within their authoritarian or democratic contexts to fully understand the practices and relations of empowerment.

Liu distinguished between forms of empowerment that cooperate with the dominant power, and forms of empowerment that work against it. To capture this, he proposed the concept of ‘facilitative empowerment’, in which citizens are brought into the governing process in order to assist in the execution of government projects.

Sintomer suggested using three contrasting imaginaries of empowerment in the West: a radical grassroots imaginary, ‘Third Way’ social-liberal imaginary and the neoliberal imaginary. He asserted that the challenge for empowerment in participating in deliberative devices was in combining the scaling-up of power structures with cooperation between local governments and local communities.

The project of citizen empowerment aims to strengthen citizens’ trust in governance, harness citizens’ agency in the service of government projects and enables citizens’ to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. The workshop participants sought to tease out and question what constitutes meaningful civic involvement in political processes and delineate the various logics of empowerment at theoretical and empirical levels. Overall, the workshop was fruitful in aiding an understanding of the concept of citizens’ empowerment as a bridge between the disciplines of Public Administration, Comparative Politics, and Political Philosophy.

Workshop 6 July 2021 Programme

As we approach the middle of the first half of the 21st century, levels of citizen empowerment have undergone profound transformations the world over. Comprising two mutually reinforcing logics of, first, meaningful civic involvement in political processes and, second, a positive disposition towards governance practices based on the promotion of citizens’ trust in the way in which governing officials and institutions discharge their decisional and administrative tasks, the project of citizens’ empowerment aims to strengthen popular input and control over the political outcomes that affect citizens’ lives (Zimmerman 2000; Qin and He 2021).In traditional pluralistic democracies, the ability – both actual and perceived – of citizens to influence political decisions appears to be approaching a crisis. In spite of the many promises since the 1960s of achieving a “deeper” and “stronger” form of democracy through the development of new participatory innovations, an enhanced role for civil society organizations, and the emergence of new social movements, alongside traditional institutions of political representation; citizen empowerment may have actually declined rather than increased (Mansbridge 1999). Recent research has shown that citizens – especially younger citizens – feel disenchanted with and excluded from the democratic process altogether (Foa et al. 2020), something that has more recently fuelled a populist politics of anger and resentment. Such a politics cannot be understood if not in the context of, and as a reaction to forms of technocratic governance justified on the basis of the increasing complexity of social problems, and whose effect has been that of insulating the governing class from ordinary citizens, and the hollowing out of politics (Maier 2013). Moreover, certain aspects of the managerial revolution in public administration have turned citizens into consumers, eroding a sense of the public and of community, while promoting more individualistic and market-like solutions to collective problems. This, together with the increasing and unchallenged power of private corporations have contributed to what some commentators regard as a form of “post-democracy” (Crouch 2004, Streeck 2016)

In states not typically considered democratic, or where electoral democracy has only recently been established, the promise of a democratic transition towards the Western model of the rule of law and a pluralist representative system, fuelled by demands of personal freedom and a more liberal economic model, has proved, if not entirely illusory, at least over-optimistic.

Nonetheless, even in some of these countries there are pressures for the empowerment of citizens and local participatory mechanisms are on the rise. Yet while citizens report feelings of empowerment resulting from their participation, their actual ability to effect political change through these mechanisms is limited (Owen 2020; Qin and He 2021).

In short, in democracies and non-democracies alike, transformations in citizens’ political subjectivities are occurring against a backdrop of re-centralisation, political polarisation, governmental secrecy, and democratic and constitutional backsliding, all processes that run counter to a logic of empowerment.

What do these countervailing trends mean for our broader understanding of democratic practices and institutions and how can we distinguish them from their iteration in non-democratic forms of governance? What are the prospects for the empowerment project in an era of rising global illiberalism? Is citizen empowerment simply a relic of a now obsolete form of governance? This workshop seeks to interrogate and showcase citizen empowerment in the 21st Century, in liberal and non-liberal contexts, from both normative and practice-oriented perspectives.

Session One

This session explores citizen empowerment in practice. It showcases a range of citizen empowerment tools, from participatory budgeting and public deliberation, to voluntary forms of association, organization, and mobilization; from more informal and interactive forms of political representation, to a more active involvement in administrative decision and the management of public resources and services. Although the focus of the presentations is on China, participants are invited to engage comparatively.

Yuan Li, Yanjun Zhu and Catherine Owen
Fudan University and the University of Exeter
‘Participatory Budgeting and Party-Building in Shanghai’

Samuel Hayat
French National Centre for Scientific Research
‘Unrepresentative Claims: Refusing to Represent as a Source of Power and Legitimacy’

Xuan Qin
Fudan University
‘The Politics of Authoritarian Empowerment: Participatory Pricing in China’

Emilie Frenkiel
Université Paris Est Créteil
‘Who are Chengdu’s village representative councils (cunmin yishihui) empowering?’

Chair: Alice Moseley, University of Exeter

Session Two

This session explores theories of empowerment, considering its foundation upon trust, and
direct and indirect forms of citizens’ involvement in decision making, and imagining ways in
which to re-invigorate the empowerment project. It will take the form of a more free-flowing
discussion, with speakers making brief initial interventions, followed by group discussion.

Dario Castiglione
University of Exeter

Chunrong Liu
Fudan University

Yves Sintomer
Paris 8 University

Chair: Catherine Owen, University of Exeter


Crouch, Colin (2004), Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity).

Foa, R.S., Klassen, A., Wenger, D., Rand, A. and M. Slade (2020) ‘Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy: Reversing the Democratic Disconnect?’ Cambridge, United Kingdom: Centre for the Future of Democracy.

Maier, Peter (2013) Ruling the Void: The Hollowing Western democracy (London: Verso).

Mansbridge, Jane (1999) ‘Chapter 13: On the Idea that Participation Makes Better Citizens’ in Citizen Competence and Democratic Institutions edited by Stephen L. Elkin and Karol Edward Soltan (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press).

Owen, Catherine (2020) ‘Participatory Authoritarianism: From Bureaucratic Transformation to Civic Participation in Russia and China’, Review of International Studies 46 (4): 415-434.

Qin, Xuan and Baogang He (2021) ‘The Politics of Authoritarian Empowerment: Participatory Pricing in China’, International Political Science Review, FirstView.

Streeck, Wolfgang (2016), How will Capitalism End? (London: Verso).

Zimmerman, Marc (2000) ‘Empowerment Theory: Psychological, Organizational and Community Levels of Analysis’ in J Rappaport and E Seidman (eds) Handbook of Community Psychology (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers), pp. 43–63.