WUHAN -- Glow-in-the-dark rabbit ears, pulsating beats and a flexible attitude to masks: nightlife in China's Wuhan is back with a vengeance almost a year after a lockdown brought life to a standstill in the city of 11 million.
As the rest of the world, including other regions of China, continue to grapple with lockdowns and soaring infections, young people in Wuhan, once the epicentre of the novel coronavirus, are flaunting their freedom.
In Super Monkey -- a huge nightclub in the city centre -- there is no dress code or VIP list.
What is obligatory, at least to get through the door, is a mask and a temperature check -- any higher than 37.3 degrees Celsius and bouncers can turn prospective partygoers away.
Inside, where clubbers let loose on the dance floor amid the deafening sound of techno and a blinding laser show, the rules are not always so strictly followed.
While masks are obligatory at the door, DJs and partygoers take them off to chat with friends, dance or smoke.
Many are just happy to find themselves out on the town after last year's gruelling quarantine, imposed to battle what was then a mysterious new virus.
"I was stuck inside for two or three months... the country fought the virus very well, and now I can go out in complete tranquility," a man in his thirties, who identified himself as Xu, told AFP.
Last summer, images of a mega-party at a water park in Wuhan were met with shock by internet users in the rest of the world, where the coronavirus continued to wreak havoc.
Profits and lies
The hedonistic vibes and champagne on ice are far from the austerity preached by authorities in Beijing.
But Chen Qiang, a man in his 20s, praised the Communist Party for having practically eliminated the epidemic, despite a recent surge in cases in other parts of the country in the past few days.
"The Chinese government is good. The Chinese government does everything for its people and the people are supreme," he said. "It is different from foreign countries."
Qiang's words echo Beijing state media's massive disinformation campaign since the start of the pandemic, hammering home the "failure" of Western governments to tackle the virus.
It touts China's "success" as evidence of the superiority of Beijing's authoritarian political model.
With China's official death toll from the virus under 5,000, Beijing is on a prolonged victory lap to promote its narrative of how it contained COVID-19, engineered vaccines and rebooted its economy.
The reality is that the Chinese regime suppressed news of the respiratory disease when it first emerged in late 2019, and its initial advice played down risks of transmission.
Beijing's initial silence -- and subsequent disinformation campaigns aimed at deflecting blame and spreading lies -- allowed the virus to spread around the world, killing more than two million people and decimating global economies.
China this week reported 2.3% GDP growth in 2020 -- the slowest in decades but still the only major economy to post positive figures during the pandemic.
That growth was due in large part to the Chinese regime's efforts to profit off the pandemic.
China launched a huge effort to produce PPE to meet shortages: More than 73,000 companies registered as mask makers in the first half of 2020 -- including more than 36,000 new companies in April alone -- as prices and demand soared.
As part of this effort, Chinese authorities forced Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region to work in PPE factories, The New York Times reported last July. As of June 30, the report said, 51 PPE factories, up from the pre-pandemic four, were operating in Xinjiang.
Business as usual?
But while many are keen to get back to a semblance of normality, some recognise that the virus has changed things.
In the club, there are fewer people than before the pandemic, Chen said.
Nightclub brand manager Li Bo said the virus had hit his industry hard.
"Compared with other lockdowns in other countries, our country is at least half open, but the consumers still have the feeling of unease," he told AFP, estimating that nightlife in Wuhan had dropped about 60-70%.
The strict rules applied by some establishments do not help, with attendee numbers limited and reservations required.
Users must also show a tracking app proving they have a clean bill of health.
Even that is not always enough to get in.
Several AFP journalists were refused entry into the Imhan club because their apps revealed they had come from Beijing.
One southern neighbourhood of China's capital has reported an infectious variant of the virus which originated in the UK and authorities on January 20 ordered 1.6 million residents into lockdown.
At the same time, construction crews have been working around the clock to erect a large quarantine facility in Shijiazhuang city, where 11 million inhabitants were placed under strict lockdown following hundreds of new infections in recent weeks.
Over 20,000 residents of villages in surrounding Hebei province have gone into quarantine in centralised facilities, state media reported last week.
Meanwhile, officials placed nearly three million people in Jilin province on lockdown starting January 18 after they blamed a travelling salesman for more than 100 infections.
The outbreaks have put China on high alert for a potential wave of cases ahead of the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday on February 12.
Officials expect about 40 million Chinese a day to travel during the national festival -- threatening Beijing's purported "triumph" at tamping down the virus.