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State Transformation and Authoritarian Governance: The Emergence of Participatory Authoritarianism?

Article by Dr Catherine Owen

September 14, 2018

State Transformation and Authoritarian Governance: The Emergence of Participatory Authoritarianism?

It is commonly assumed that authoritarian governments do not wish to involve citizens in questions of governance or public administration. Instead, conventional wisdom has it that the leaders of such states seek to disengage and depoliticise their citizens and, when ‘mobilization’ is required, ‘the masses’ are either ‘coerced’ on threat of violence or ‘co-opted’ with rewards and bribes. While this may have been true of mid-twentieth Century authoritarianism, recent research by country specialists has revealed an abundance of local, voluntary, participatory mechanisms proliferating across well-established non-democratic states, such as Russia and China. Although national elections in these states are either heavily managed or entirely absent, press freedom is strongly curtailed and those who speak out against the regime are severely targeted, citizens in both countries can freely choose to join civic groups that provide welfare services, engage in participatory budgeting, give feedback on local government performance and debate policy proposals.

In Russia, for example, since the early 2000s new government-organised participatory mechanisms have been developed and implemented throughout the country. First, consultative forums have proliferated at federal, regional and municipal levels. Known as public chambers and public councils, these forums enable certain citizens to engage directly with policy-makers to debate proposals and raise issues of local concern.[1] Second, the category of ‘socially oriented NGO’ was adopted in 2010 to regulate the activities of ‘apolitical’, mostly welfare-providing non-profit organisations, which carry out activities in the sphere of conservation, historical preservation, sports, education and health care.[2] Third, various participatory budgeting schemes, which enable local residents to have a say in the allocation of municipal budgets, have been implemented across Russia, involving both the World Bank and local, independent initiatives.[3]

In China, municipal and regional level governance has always been the object of experimentation; hence, there exists wide variation in practices of governance across the country. Yet, since 2000, local authorities in various provinces have been employing a number of strategies to open up the policy-making process to citizens. In Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, citizens may provide evaluations of government performance across 117 branches of local government activity in a project called the ‘evaluations and examinations system’, which in 2012 had already involved over 15,000 citizens. Likewise, citizens of Hangzhou may debate policy proposals with local officials in a consultative forum known as the ‘Red House Consultations’.[4] Participatory budgeting is also spreading around the country, with thousands of initiatives in place at the village level.[5] And the number of public organisations in China has exploded in recent years, with around 675,000 formally registered with the authorities (and a further estimated 3 million unregistered), leading some to call it an ‘associational revolution’.[6]

One of the main drivers behind the emergence of this new form of participatory authoritarianism has been the marketisation of state bureaucracies, which began in the UK, the USA and New Zealand during the late 1970s and early 1980s and rapidly spread around the world.  To varying extents, national governments began to introduce mechanisms drawn from the private sector into domestic public sectors in an ensemble of norms that came to be known as New Public Management (NPM). This included the privatisation of state-owned assets, the devolution of executive power to the provincial or municipal levels, the outsourcing of government functions to businesses and charitable organisations, and the monetisation and means-testing of welfare. The result was a shift in domestic state architecture away from the so-called ‘command and control’ states of the twentieth Century, which provided goods and services directly to citizens, and towards types of regulatory states, which engage in practices of ‘arms’ length governance’.  In regulatory states, governments are no longer the primary source of the knowledge and resources required for the effective formulation and delivery of public policy and, consequently, they must establish mechanisms that allow them to access this knowledge and resources in order to manage and oversee the policy process. In authoritarian regimes, such consultative mechanisms are all the more important since other feedback channels, such as a free press and fair elections, are either corrupted or fully absent.

In regulatory states, a new kind of citizen is required: one who actively engages in policy-making processes, assists local authorities in social campaigns and gives constructive feedback on government proposals. However, non-democratic regimes face the additional challenge of fomenting active citizens who are aware of and keep within the boundaries to their participation. And indeed, authoritarian governments are finding increasingly innovative ways to do just that. In Russia and China, leaders are increasingly calling on citizens to become active in areas formerly the preserve of government. In 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the 12 core values of socialism in order to invigorate the ideology, and in 2013, introduced the ‘Chinese Dream’ as a means by which individual citizens can link their personal goals to those of the state. In Russia, increased civic participation has been a key theme of President Vladimir Putin’s speeches since his first term in power, in which he has repeatedly called upon the population to shake off its Soviet-era passivity and help the development of the nation by becoming active citizens. However, the fostering of such initiatives comes alongside increasingly draconian crackdowns in both countries on dissenting voices elsewhere in the public sphere. A full exposition of the growing levels of censorship in Russia and China is beyond the scope of this article – hence, a couple of examples will suffice for illustration. In Russia, one can be imprisoned for ‘offending religious feelings’ and anti-systemic opposition and human rights activists are regularly silenced through imprisonment or house arrest. In China, those who speak out publicly against the regime are frequently imprisoned, or ‘disappear’. In both states, the authorities enact ever closer internet surveillance for ‘subversive’ materials.[7] The message to citizens appears to be thus: constructive input on specific policies through approved fora is encouraged, but independent criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, the Russian Orthodox Church or other pillars of these regimes, is not.

Nevertheless, studies in each country suggest that consultative fora do exercise a certain amount of influence on policy outcomes. In Russia, public consultations are likely to have an effect on those areas not seen to pertain to areas of national or strategic importance. Examples of successful lobbying via consultative structures include the introduction of courts of appeal, improvements in prison conditions, changing the law on military service to exempt PhD students from conscription, conservation of city architecture, monitoring of the local government budget and work on the liberalization of the NGO law in 2009.[8] In China, less data is available on precisely which policies have been influenced through these mechanisms, but scholars of China frequently cite the responsive nature of local authorities as a key feature of Chinese governance.[9]

These developments have profound consequences for the way in which we view authoritarian regimes. First, instead of seeing authoritarianism solely as an elite-led project, voluntary practices of civic participation suggest that authoritarian regimes can be deeply embedded at the local level and enjoy grassroots legitimation and support. Citizens are not coerced into participatory activities but act out of a desire to improve their local community through the mechanisms available. Second, rather than seeing authoritarian regimes as the conceptual and logical opposite to democracies, the existence of civic participation in authoritarian settings is a reminder that all states are constituted by combinations of practices that include both ‘democratic’ practices of participation, accountability and justice and ‘authoritarian’ practices of coercion, co-optation and arbitrariness, which are enacted simultaneously by different sections of state apparatus, and whose dynamics are constantly interacting and evolving. Finally, a focus on the globalisation of governance norms shows how ostensibly liberal discourses and practices, such as civic participation in local governance, can be used to sustain illiberal rule at the national level.

[1] These forums have been the subject of much research. See Catherine Owen (2016) ‘A Genealogy of Kontrol’ in Russia: From Leninist to Neoliberal Governance’, Slavic Review, 75 (2): 331–53; James Richter (2009) ‘Putin and the Public Chamber’, Post-Soviet Affairs 25 (1): 39–65; James Richter (2009) ‘The Ministry of Civil Society? The Public Chambers in the Regions’, Problems of Post-Communism, 56 (6): 7–20; Kirsti Stuvøy (2014) ‘Power and Public Chambers in the Development of Civil Society in Russia’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 47: 409–19.

[2] Rossiiskaya Gazeta (2010), ‘Federal’nyi Zakon Rossiiskoi Federatsii ot 5 aprelya 2010g No. 40 F2: O vnesenii izmenenii v otdel’nyye zakonodatel’nyye akty Rossiiskoi Federatsii po voprosu podderzhki sotsial’no oriyentirovannykh nekommercheskikh organizatsii’, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 7 April,

[3] PB Network (2016) ‘Participatory Budgeting Awareness Grows in Russia’, 4 January 2016. Available at:;  For a successful local initiative in St Petersburg, conducted in co-operation between the municipal government and the European University at St Petersburg, see: .

[4] Jane Duckett & Hua Wang (2013) Extending political participation in China: new opportunities for citizens in the policy process, Journal of Asian Public Policy, 6:3, 263-276; For discussion of village level deliberative mechansisms see:

[5] Baogang He (2011) Civic Engagement Through Participatory Budgeting in China: Three Different Logics at Work’, Public Administration and Development 31: 122-133.

[6] Carolyn Hsu, Fang-Yu Chen, Jamie P. Horsley, and Rachel Stern (2016) ‘The State of NGOs in China Today, Brookings Institution, 15 December 2016. Available at:;  Jessica Teets (2014) Civil Society under Authoritarianism: The China Model (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[7] See Human Rights Watch (2016) ‘Russia: ‘Big Brother’ Law Harms Security, Rights’, 12 July 2016. Available at:; Cheang Ming and Saheli Roy Choudhury (2017) ‘China has launched another crackdown on the internet — but it’s different this time’, CNBC, 26 October 2017. Available at:

[8] Catherine Owen and Eleanor Bindman (2017) ‘Civic Participation in a Hybrid Regime: Limited Pluralism in Policymaking and Delivery in Contemporary Russia’, Government and Opposition. Online First.

[9] Kevin O’Brien Kevin and Lianjiang Li (2006) Rightful Resistance in Rural China (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press); Wenfang Tang (2016) Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability (New York, NY: Oxford University Press); Baogang He and Mark E. Warren (2011) ‘Authoritarian Deliberation: The Deliberative Turn in Chinese Political Development’, Perspectives on Politics 9 (2): 269-289.

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