WUHAN -- After months of denials, lies, foot-dragging and obfuscation about the origins of the coronavirus, Beijing is now taking its disinformation attempts to a whole new level: trying to convince the world that China is the victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This re-writing of history, and subsequent whitewashing of the role Beijing's lies played in spreading the deadly disease, occurs first and foremost in Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic.
Chinese state-media has gone into overdrive, pumping out story after story about the regime's victory over COVID-19 in an attempt to counter reality.
The government's aim is "to create a state-approved version of the collective memory of the coronavirus pandemic for the public", Lotus Ruan, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, told The New York Times earlier this month.
A woman standing outside her chicken hot-pot shop at a market in Wuhan is proof that Beijing's narrative has taken hold.
"It came from other countries; China is the victim," she told the BBC Newshour.
Her neighbour at the fish monger agreed.
"The virus is not from Wuhan. It came from America," she said without elaborating on that claim.
For much of the past year, while the world's pandemic struggles continue, Beijing has been working to spin the narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic as China's great victory: life in Wuhan, once the epicentre of the virus, is back to normal and the economy is growing.
Wuhan today is nothing like the locked-down ghost town of a year ago, with nightclubs and shopping districts bustling and citizens packing public transport and parks.
"Life is like before now," a maskless jogger in his 20s who gave only his surname, Wang, told AFP.
Huang Genben, 76, spent 67 days in hospital fighting COVID-19 last year, spitting up blood and expecting to die.
"When I closed my eyes at night, I didn't know if I would open them again," he told AFP.
Like many of his compatriots, he expresses pride at the "great efforts" made by China's government and citizens to contain the pandemic, exemplified by Wuhan.
"We can tell from the results that the policy of the government was correct; the co-operation of [Wuhan] citizens was correct," Huang said. "I feel pain seeing the epidemic all over the world."
Army of censors
Calling Wuhan's lockdown a "success" is far from the truth, as COVID-19 swiftly spread to other parts of China and continues to ravage the world.
But Chinese leaders have little interest in acknowledging or dwelling on their mistakes.
Instead, the government has pushed an official propaganda narrative -- starring Wuhan -- focusing on a "heroic" Chinese response and recovery.
"China's response was portrayed as a huge victory for the Chinese Communist Party," said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, a research programme affiliated with the University of Hong Kong.
"For China's leaders, the story is written," he told The New York Times.
To ensure that story goes unquestioned, the government has in recent weeks deployed an army of censors to scrub the internet of anything critical regarding the Wuhan outbreak, the newspaper reported. Terms such as "first anniversary" and "whistle blower" have at times been removed from Chinese websites.
"A recent propaganda directive explicitly banned coverage of the anniversary of the outbreak, according to journalists at state-run news outlets who were briefed on the order," The New York Times reported.
The anniversary of Wuhan's 76-day lockdown on January 23 received the barest acknowledgment in China, with no official government statements and minimal mention in state propaganda outlets.
A commentary in the Beijing News professed "mixed feelings", praising the aggressive lockdown as a model for the world while noting Wuhan's sacrifices -- and the persistent virus threat.
"We must not lose the hard-won results of the epidemic to negligence and must not let the epidemic rebound," it said.
"Pay tribute to Wuhan," it added. "Pay tribute to the strong and fearless Chinese people!"
Chinese authorities 'are very nervous'
Beijing's spin took on more urgency in recent weeks as World Health Organisation (WHO) experts arrived in the city to probe the origins of the coronavirus.
After the Chinese regime blocked them from arriving earlier this month, the international team of 13 scientists landed in Wuhan on January 14 and are due to emerge from a 14-day quarantine on Thursday (January 28).
While the WHO team is in Wuhan, relatives of the city's coronavirus dead say Chinese authorities have deleted their social media group and are pressuring them to keep quiet.
A group on social media platform WeChat used by 80 to 100 family members over the past year was suddenly deleted without explanation about 10 days ago, Zhang Hai, a group member and a vocal critic of the outbreak's handling, said Wednesday.
"This shows that [Chinese authorities] are very nervous. They are afraid that these families will get in touch with the WHO experts," said Zhang, 51, whose father died early in the pandemic of suspected COVID-19.
"When the WHO arrived in Wuhan, [authorities] forcibly demolished [the group]. As a result we have lost contact with many members," he added.
Other next of kin confirmed the group's deletion.
Another family member, a retiree who says her adult daughter died of the virus last January, told AFP that authorities summoned her last week and warned her not to "speak to media or be used by others".
Authorities came to her door on Tuesday "and sang the same old tune and gave me 5,000 CNY [$775] in a 'condolence payment'", she added, requesting anonymity.
Relatives accuse the Wuhan and Hubei provincial governments of allowing COVID-19 to explode out of control by trying to conceal the outbreak when it first emerged in the city in December 2019, then failing to alert the public and bungling the response.
According to official Chinese figures, COVID-19 killed almost 3,900 in Wuhan, accounting for the vast majority of the 4,636 dead whom China has reported.
Many next of kin distrust those numbers, saying the scarcity of testing in the outbreak's chaotic early days meant many are likely to have died without being confirmed to have the disease.
More than two million people have died so far globally.
The Chinese regime has sought to deflect blame for the horrific worldwide human and economic toll by suggesting, without proof, that it emerged elsewhere.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) smothers anything that reflects its governance in a poor light, and the early days of the outbreak remain among the most sensitive topics in China today.
The virus is believed to have emerged from bats and to have initially spread from a wet market in Wuhan that sold wild animals as food.
Little else is known, and it is unclear how much the WHO team will be able to uncover, given Beijing's history of secrecy, disinformation and delays.