Central Asian journalists are looking on with alarm as the People's Republic of China (PRC) continues to crack down on foreign journalists and free speech.
Two Australian journalists fled China under diplomatic protection earlier this week amid rapidly deteriorating relations between Beijing and Canberra.
Their dramatic overnight exit Tuesday (September 8) came following days of secret wrangling that had seen both men holed up in Australia's diplomatic missions to escape the clutches of the feared Chinese security police.
Bill Birtles and Michael Smith had to consent to questioning before they were allowed to leave China, shepherded out of the country on a late-night flight by Australian diplomats.
Both men were quizzed about fellow Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who has been detained since last month.
Beijing acknowledged September 8 for the first time that she was being held on "national security grounds" -- a broad category that can include crimes resulting in lengthy prison sentences.
Beijing confirmed the two men had been questioned but insisted the move had been legitimate.
"As long as foreign journalists obey the law... they have no reason to worry," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing.
Several reporters for US media this year have had their visas revoked and been forced to leave the country -- in what critics have interpreted as targeting of Western media outlets by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Fear of independent, investigative media
The United States September 8 said that it had been informed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry of unspecified tighter rules for foreign media.
"These proposed actions will worsen the reporting environment in China, which is already suffering a dearth of open and independent media reporting," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus wrote on Twitter.
"Why is the CCP afraid of independent and investigative media reporting?" she asked.
At least 19 foreign correspondents have been forced to leave China this year, and the move "increasingly threatens the international community's right to be informed", said Reporter Without Borders.
The two Australians' ordeal marked "a significant escalation" by Beijing, said the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, adding that foreign journalists "now face the threat of arbitrary detention for simply doing their work".
In February, the Chinese regime kicked out three journalists from the Wall Street Journal after the newspaper ran an opinion piece on the coronavirus crisis with a headline that Beijing deemed racist.
Weeks later, Washington curbed the number of Chinese nationals from state-run news outlets in the United States.
Beijing responded in March by expelling more than a dozen American journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The crackdown on independent journalists in China is an example of Beijing's more aggressive projection of power and influence across Asia since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, analysts say.
"They just seem to be taking the view that as a rising power they should be able to flex their strategic, ideological and rhetorical muscle, and that other countries are just going to have to put up with it," said James Curran, an Australian former intelligence analyst and prime ministerial adviser.
Beijing's 'destructive pressure' affects Central Asia
The incident "marks a new low", said Australian author and former China correspondent Richard McGregor.
"Other countries grappling with China will take note," he said. "If their bilateral relationship deteriorates, then their own nationals will be in the firing line as well."
"The pressure on Australian journalists from Chinese law enforcement, though it doesn't affect us directly, still arouses concern," said Mirlan Telebarisov, former director of the advertising and public relations department at the Kursiv business newspaper in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
"The direction that Chinese information policy is taking can hardly be called objective," he said.
"We all remember how the Chinese news media spread information about some fatal new pneumonia in Kazakhstan that allegedly wasn't linked to the coronavirus, thus arousing a panic," he said. "Later they corrected the information because it wasn't the truth."
"This is an example of how their aggressive information policy can exert destructive pressure on Central Asian countries," Telebarisov said.
Kyrgyzstan too is feeling the Chinese regime's pressure on information flow, said Jyldyzbek Ibraliyev, a Orbita.kg correspondent in Bishkek.
"The Chinese authorities have always controlled information and propaganda at the highest level," he said. "That's why the PRC tracks the activity and movements of foreign journalists in China day and night."
"This year in China, supposedly independent news agencies have carried fake news -- they have published maps on which parts of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan appear to be part of China or seemingly will be Chinese territory soon," he said.
"Such published materials are far from accidental or erroneous, given our countries' huge debts to China," Ibraliyev said. "China is threatening us in a low-key manner. This is just one of many examples of Beijing's media pressure."
He predicted further restrictions from Chinese authorities in the future.
"In light of its growing domestic economic problems caused by COVID-19, the PRC will only strengthen control over information -- not only domestically but abroad too."
[Kanat Altynbayev from Almaty contributed to this report]