In the Chaoyang district of northeast Beijing, a nondescript wall covered in patriotic posters protects one of the city's most valuable treasures: a dirt field containing nothing but a few scattered trees.
In November, the block sold for 3.3 billion yuan ($A703 million), according to Beijing Municipal Bureau of Land and Resources data, meaning the cost to the developer of each apartment built will be above the price at which nearby homes currently change hands, once a commitment to build a quota of affordable housing is factored in.
"The flour is more expensive than the bread," said Guo Yi, market director at Yahao, a real estate consulting agency in Beijing, using a Chinese proverb to describe how undeveloped land in some prime locations has become more expensive than second-hand apartments. "We see increasing risks."
Such speculative pressure underlines a growing distortion in China's housing market.
While property prices in much of China are still falling, a rebound is under way in the biggest cities, bringing with it the return of land speculation that could stoke another bubble and widening the economic gap between "tier 1" centres and the rest.
Leading developers are buying new lots of land in major cities amid a backdrop of improved property sales and a loosening monetary environment.
"Developers are making land grabs in big cities because everyone thinks first-tier cities are safe," said a senior official at a medium-sized listed property company in Beijing, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media. "We are worried about risks of overheating."
On a nationwide basis, house prices posted their first annual rise in 14 months during October, a weighted average gain of 0.1 per cent. On a monthly basis, prices rose 0.2 per cent, official data showed.
Even a modest recovery in a sector that accounts for 15 per cent of gross domestic product is a welcome boost for an economy heading for its weakest growth in 25 years.
But the gains were largely concentrated in major cities, reflecting an increasingly unbalanced housing recovery.
Prices in Shenzhen rose 39.9 per cent in October from a year earlier, while the were up 10.9 per cent in Shanghai, and 6.5 per cent in Beijing. In monthly terms, prices rose in only 27 of 70 cities, however.
That has the effect of pushing up property prices in major cities, where demand is strong. But outside the top-tier cities, excess supply and a weaker economy are discouraging new construction and investment.