China has been accused of covering up a horrific coronavirus death toll of tens of thousands of people and unleashing a potential wave of new infections by taking the city at the epicentre of the outbreak out of quarantine to help jump-start its national economy.
Communist Party officials are suspected of manipulating statistics to hide a cataclysmic body count in Wuhan in Hubei province in a cynical ploy to allow it to sprint ahead of other major economies by getting back to business as vast swathes of the world remain paralysed by the pandemic.
Incredibly, Beijing claims only 3,336 people have been killed by Covid-19 in China - just over a third of Britain's current total and one 30th of the global toll.
Chinese officials now report almost zero new infections. Even more astonishingly, China says only 119 people have died in its 25 provinces outside Hubei - many of them the size of European countries - while simultaneously killing more than 102,000 people outside China.
All but two of those provinces claim to have had zero deaths or less than ten deaths.
For that scenario to be true, Covid-19 would have had to miraculously bypass more than 1.3billion people in the rest of China even as people travelled freely in and out of Wuhan, which is linked by air and high-speed rail to Beijing and Shanghai and cities across China, from the start of the November outbreak until the January 23 lockdown.
But as China triumphantly returns to business as usual and lifts a travel ban on Wuhan where the virus began, critics and sources within the country claim its statistics defy logic and warn its decision to lift the quarantine is triggering panic among Chinese citizens.
China - battered by the US trade war and a prolonged slowdown that threatened to undermine its legitimacy before Covid-19 - celebrated its alleged victory over the virus by setting off fireworks over Wuhan last week and urging people to go back to work and start shopping again to revive the economy.
The announcements follow a decline in reported Covid-19 cases that has gathered pace since President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan on March 10 and spoke to hospital workers by video link to signal China's triumph over the outbreak.
Since that visit, there have been only 200 more reported deaths in China according to official statistics and the country where Covid19 originated claims a death rate of just 2.4 people per million, compared with 90 per million in the UK and 300 per million in Spain.
The astonishing disappearance of the virus within China - while countries like Britain face up to a year of lockdown - began weeks after credible reports emerged from Wuhan in February of cemeteries burning hundreds of bodies 24 hours a day, mobile crematoriums being sent to the city, and hospitals being overwhelmed by sick and dying patients.
CIA officials told the White House in a leaked report that China is vastly understating both Covid-19 deaths and cases in the same way financiers worldwide accept it has for decades routinely manipulated its GDP data to maintain a consistently positive narrative.
Chinese dissident Jennifer Zeng, who has monitored the outbreak through contacts within the country, said: 'Many sources told us Wuhan was preparing to build 15 more makeshift hospitals to cope with the number of victims. But after President Xi's visit, officials suddenly declared hospital patients should be sent home.
'Patients were released without being properly diagnosed and tested. They wanted the city to reopen for economic activity, so they just pretended the virus was totally under control. But we have seen videos of bodies being moved at night, people collapsing in the street, and we've heard from hospitals with 100 victims in the past week.
'The figure of 3,000 deaths is absolute b******t. Based on the world average and Italy's ratio, I believe there have been dozens of thousands of deaths at least. It is possible there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths.'
Suspicions over the official death toll are widespread, even within China.
An MoS correspondent in Guangxi province, south-west China, said: 'Some people say this number should be multiplied by ten. Others say it should be multiplied by 40. They delivered 40,000 funeral urns to Wuhan, so everyone knows the government figure is a lie.'
Officials in Guangxi were last week offering 1,000 renminbi (£114) rewards to citizens who report people arriving in the province from Hubei.
The bounty follows extraordinary scenes when Hubei police fought with police from neighbouring Jiangxi trying to stop Hubei people crossing a bridge between the two provinces in late March.
In clashes captured on video, police officers from the two provinces wrestled with each other, while people in face masks from either side of the bridge fought and overturned police cars after migrant workers without the virus were told they could once again leave Hubei for work.
The violence erupted after barricades were reportedly set up by police to stop the Hubei workers crossing into Jiangxi where, according to government figures, there have been less than 1,000 Covid-19 cases and only one death.
The chaotic showdown showed the lack of trust Chinese people have in official assurances that the virus is no longer a threat.
A commentary in the Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily complained 'some places are discriminating against Hubei people without purpose'.
As factories reopen in Guangdong province, home to the country's biggest migrant worker population, police were conducting spot checks at railway stations and in the street to intercept anyone from Hubei, taking them to be tested in detention.
In Beijing, meanwhile, people were on high alert about the risk of infection, with most restaurants and bars still closed and residents terrified of encountering people from the epicentre of the outbreak.
'No one will allow people from Hubei in and they will be rounded up wherever they go,' said a photographer in the capital.
Professor Ben Cowling, co-director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said officials in China may have significantly underestimated infection rates early on by only counting people with advanced symptoms like pneumonia.
However, he insisted: 'The cohort of people leaving Wuhan are perhaps going to be the most tested people in the word. Wherever they go, they are probably going to be monitored and surveilled.'
Asked how so much of China escaped the virus, Prof Cowling said he believed the most important factor was the lockdowns being 'widely applied across a large number of cities before community transmission could be established'.
Zeng, a researcher with the State Council in Beijing before she was jailed and exiled for her connections to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, has a blunter explanation.
'The Chinese Communist Party lied about the numbers from the beginning because it's in their DNA,' she said.
'Whenever anything negative happens, they cover it up. Now people are laughing at the numbers from China - but because they have already told such a big lie, they have no option other than to carry on lying.'
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.