We, but let me start with the beginning.

First of all, I find it very interesting that Adam Smith never used the expression.
He explained the intricacies of the market without describing it as being ‘free’. For him, the market had to be free in order to function properly…

But, perhaps, no country has ever yet arrived at this degree of opulence. China seems to have been long stationary, and had, probably, long ago acquired that full complement of riches which is consistent with the nature of its laws and institutions. But this complement may be much inferior to what, with other laws and institutions, the nature of its soil, climate, and situation, might admit of. A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce, and which admits the vessel of foreign nations into one or two of its ports only, cannot transact the same quantity of business which it might do with different laws and institutions. In a country, too, where, though the rich, or the owners of large capitals, enjoy a good deal of security, the poor, or the owners of small capitals, enjoy scarce any, but are liable, under the pretence of justice, to be pillaged and plundered at any time by the inferior mandarins, the quantity of stock employed in all the different branches of business transacted within it, can never be equal to what the nature and extent of that business might admit. In every different branch, the oppression of the poor must establish the monopoly of the rich, who, by engrossing the whole trade to themselves, will be able to make very large profits. Twelve per cent. accordingly, is said to be the common interest of money in China, and the ordinary profits of stock must be sufficient to afford this large interest.”

OK, he was talking about the XVIII-th century China… but I’m sure you already know that.

Then what was it which lead Britain on what is currently known as the ‘free market path’ but blocked China, until very recently, from following suit?
After all, the participants to both markets were driven by the same self interest and their efforts were determined by the same division of work. Not to mention the fact that China’s was a many times bigger market than Britain’s. Initially, of course.

Both countries had a lot in common. Both populations were similarly stratified and class conscious, both monarchies had reached the same level of impotency, both states were run by specialized coteries … what was the difference?

“A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce…”

For a market to be truly free – as in ‘fully functional’, those who participate in it need to be free to do as they see fit and to go wherever they wish.
For this to happen the participants have to feel free – to be conscious of their freedom, and those who oversee the market need to act only as ‘arbiters’ and never as rulers.

This was the difference between the XVIII-th England and China. The British authorities were a lot more permissive than those ‘in charge of’ China and the British subjects felt a lot freer than the Chinese.
While the British authorities did nothing more than police the market, the Chinese Mandarins actually run the day to day activity.
The end result being that the British merchant men learned to deal with each-other and ask for help only when the law was broken, while the Chinese were conditioned to look up for directions at every corner of the road.
As a consequence, the free participants to the free market have learned to respect each-other, and to collectively defend their freedom, while the mainland Chinese have been conditioned to accept that bowing your head was safer.

But people learn fast.
Just look at what’s currently happening in Hong-Kong.