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Freedom, Authority, and Economics: Understanding the United States and China

The governments of the United States and China were formed from opposing ideas of freedom, authority, economics, and how society should be structured. Despite their stark differences, both sets of ideas originated in Europe and grew out of deep concern for the rights and well-being of ordinary citizens.

To truly understand either country, it’s important to know the thinking that gave birth to them both. It is impossible in short space to delve very deeply into topics about which millions of words have been written, so we’ll settle for a thumbnail sketch.

John LockeOrigins of Liberal Thought

The founders of the United States were greatly influenced by the thinking of Europe’s “liberal” philosophers. Liberal, in this case, means someone who believes in “liberty” or freedom.

Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill argued that human beings are by nature free and may do as they wish without asking permission of others. Liberal thinkers asserted that people live together under a “social contract,” that says the role of government is to protect the life, liberty and property of citizens. People agree to be governed and government may not take away freedom without justification.

An economic system based on private property is central to liberal thought. Unless people can own property, operate a business, sell their labor, earn, save and invest money (or capital) as they see fit, they aren’t really free at all. In short, freedom and property rights are inseparable.

Liberalism and the American Revolution

Protesting taxation without representation, 13 British colonies in America formally announced their separation from Great Britain in 1776, triggering the Revolutionary War. The United States of America was Locke Treatiserecognized after the treaty of Paris in 1783.

America’s founders relied heavily on liberal principles for guidance as they built the framework of a new government. When drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed extensively from John Locke, and James Madison reflected many liberal ideas in drafting the Constitution.

Origins of Communist Thought

The Communist state that governs China today is rooted in the thinking of “socialist” philosophers who disliked the idea of private property and envisioned societies where wealth was distributed equally and people weren’t exploited by a ruling class.

Karl Marx and Friedrich EngelsGerman philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels built upon those ideas in 1848, when they published The Communist Manifesto, a set of guiding principles for a Communist society. The terms “Marxism” and “Marxist” are sometimes used to describe Communist ideas and the people who support them.

Marx and Engels advocated an economic and political system in which there is no private property and no for-profit private industry. Rather, factories and farms (which they called the “means of production”) are owned by everyone – or owned communally – for the common good. That’s where the name “communism” comes from.

Under this communal system, everyone would work and everyone would receive all that they needed to live comfortably. “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” was a guiding principle.

Marx and Engels argued that if Communism were allowed to develop fully, people would live in abundance, the gap between rich and poor would be erased and social classes would disappear. Because the system would greatlyThe Communist Manifesto improve their lives, people would protect it voluntarily and there would be no need for a government and or ruling class.

In the end, Marx and Engels believed that Communism would bring about absolute freedom. But they also believed this sort of paradise on earth could only come about through a worker’s revolution.

Communism Comes to China

After 2,000 years of imperial rule, the dawn of the 20th century found the Chinese people very discontent with life under the Qing Dynasty. Calls for governmental reform were ignored, spurring the rise of a democratic nationalist movement and triggering the Republican Revolution of 1911. The rebellion forced China’s last emperor to give up his throne, and Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen became provisional president of the Chinese Republic. But soon, China fell into civil war as other leaders fought to control the new nation.

Meanwhile, Marxist ideas were taking root in Russia. Vladimir Lenin heeded the Marxist call for revolution in 1917 and seized control of the country from Russia’s royal family. Marxist thought was also spreading among China’s intellectuals. In 1921, China’s Communist Party was born in Shanghai. Mao Zedong became one of its staunchest advocates.

Decades of social unrest and civil war would follow before Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, bringing his adapted version of Communism to China and giving birth to the People’s Republic of China. Mao and members of the Chinese Communist Party began ruling and rebuilding China following the Soviet example.

Different Ruling Structures

From the beginning, people have made the rules for government in the United States, not the other way around. Our basic rights are guaranteed in our Constitution. We govern ourselves through a representative democracy, and we get to pick the people who make our rules and laws. True to our liberal heritage, the U.S. economy is a capitalist, free-market economy.

Power is balanced in three branches of government. The executive branch consists of the president and vice president. The legislative branch (Congress), is a two-house or “bicameral” system consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The 435 House members are elected to two-year terms. The 100 Senators are elected to six-year terms. The judicial branch consists of the U.S. Supreme Court and system of lower federal courts.

When the People’s Republic of China was formed, Mao Zedong and the leaders of the Communist Party ruled with absolute authority and imposed strict controls over many aspects of everyday life. True to their Marxist origins, the Communists imposed collective ownership of industries and farms and established a state-run or “command” economy.

China also has three branches of government. Its executive branch consists of the president and vice president, the premier and vice premiers and a cabinet called the “State Council,” which is appointed by the National People’s Congress. The legislative branch consists of the National People’s Congress and a permanent standing committee. Its 2,985 members serve five-year terms and are chosen in a series of local, regional and provincial elections. The judicial branch consists of the Supreme People’s Court and a system of lower courts.

While the Chinese constitution states that “all power belongs to the people” and guarantees Chinese citizens the freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, of demonstration and of religion, the practical truth is that government makes the rules for people, not the other way around.

A Changing China: Evolution, Not Revolution

By 1958, a misguided economic policy known as “The Great Leap Forward” led to disaster in China. The traditional market fell apart, factories turned out poor products, and production on farms fell behind. Tens of millions died in the famine that resulted. Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of 1966-76, resulted in even more economic misery, social chaos, and widespread human-rights abuses.

After Mao’s death in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping began to rebuild a Chinese economy that was in shambles. By late 1978, he and other Communist Party leaders began the series of market-oriented economic reforms that today are fueling China’s remarkable economic growth. Ironically, the country that once condemned the free-market system may be well on its way to dominating it.

Democratic reforms in China have not been as quick to develop. The Communist Party keeps strict political control. Many observe that China remains a repressive – and sometimes brutal – regime that does not tolerate dissent and that tramples individual freedoms.

Discontent with China’s government and an economic downturn spurred mass student demonstrations in Beijing and many other cities in the spring and summer of 1989. On June 4, the world watched as soldiers violently dispersed the protesters.

Calls for increased freedom persist today, as do worries about whether China will try to rein-in Hong Kong’s democratic system, now that the former British colony has again become part of China. Many observers believe that, if it happens at all, democracy in China will happen very gradually, by “evolution, not revolution.”


  • The United States is made up of 50 states and the District of Columbia. There is a national or “federal” government. In addition, each state has its own government and legislature.
  • China is made up of 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, and four municipalities.
  • The United States is a constitution-based federal republic.
  • China considers itself “a socialist state under the people's democratic dictatorship.”

Still Curious?

Learn About “Liberal” Philosophers

Learn About Marxism

Learn About the U.S. System of Government

Learn About the Chinese System of Government

Official Web site of the United States Senate

Official Web site of the U.S. House of Representatives

Constitution of the United States of America

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China

Part Communist, Part Capitalist

The Cultural Revolution