This article investigates how the legalisation and economic privatisation processes taking place in China since the late 1970s have contributed to the formation of autonomous public spheres. It explores how unofficial artists have worked to create a space for innovative elite culture outside both state-promoted official culture and market-driven popular culture. Unofficial artists have found their own sphere by counting on non-interference from the state and by risking punishment if the state decided to interfere. This strategy requires non-state resources available through the market economy. The artists' strategy fits with the liberal conception of private economy facilitating social freedom, but questions the universality of the relationship between social freedom and legal limits for the state.