Citizen involvement in major government initiatives is increasingly favoured in the evolving theory and practice of public administration. As a mega project, the Shanghai Expo featured citizen involvement both as a publicity idea and as a pragmatic approach for obtaining resources and support from citizens. Due to the lack of a participatory democratic tradition, the Shanghai municipality has sought to promote citizen involvement through specific social projects over a short time. The paper explores the evolution of citizen involvement from consumerism to collaborative governance, and suggests the concept of empowerment as a crucial perspective in the promotion of such citizen involvement. Within this framework, two projects of the Shanghai Expo are analysed as case studies focusing on the empowerment process in citizen involvement. In conclusion, the study offers some reflections on the current state of citizen involvement and puts forward suggestions for post-Expo governance in Shanghai. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.