The Wall Street Journal’s China staff is urging the newspaper to apologize for a headline that prompted the Chinese government to expel three of its journalists last week.

The email from the Journal’s China bureau to the top officers of the paper’s parent companies, in effect, sides with the Chinese, who have demanded an apology and retaliated with the expulsions last week.

The headline in question — “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” — appeared on an opinion column written by academic and foreign affairs specialist Walter Russell Mead in the Journal on Feb. 3. The column was a commentary on the health of China’s financial markets, rather than a reference to the coronavirus outbreak there.

Chinese officials and ordinary citizens have protested that “sick man” is a racist phrase once used by Westerners to denigrate China during and immediately after the era in which colonial powers dominated and exploited the nation.

The protests led the government on Wednesday to revoke the press credentials of three Journal reporters, giving them five days to leave the country in the largest such action against Western journalists since 1989.

The Journal has expressed “regret” over the headline but has not apologized or amended it.

“We . . . ask you to consider correcting the headline and apologizing to our readers, sources, colleagues and anyone else who was offended by it,” said an email sent on behalf of Journal employees by Jonathan Cheng, the Journal’s bureau chief in Beijing, to William Lewis, the Journal’s publisher and chief executive of Dow Jones & Co., and Lewis’s boss, Robert Thomson, the chief executive of News Corp.

The email added, “This is not about editorial independence or the sanctity of the divide between news and opinion. It is not about the content of Dr. Mead’s article. It is about the mistaken choice of a headline that was deeply offensive to many people, not just in China.

“We find the argument that no offense was intended to be unconvincing: Someone should have known that it would cause widespread offense. If they didn’t know that, they made a bad mistake, and should correct it and apologize.”

The email, sent Thursday, was signed by 53 members of the Journal’s China staff and “other colleagues involved in our coverage,” it said. Cheng was not among its signatories but sent a separate email endorsing the staff’s stance

In a separate email, also obtained by The Washington Post, Cheng told the two senior executives that their “proper handling of this matter is essential to the future of our presence in China.”

Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus indicated Saturday that the Journal’s position has not changed.

“We understand the extreme challenges our employees and their families are facing in China,” he said in a statement. “. . . The experience of working through coronavirus and the expulsion of close colleagues is in­credibly difficult, and we have encouraged open conversations about their concerns so that we can offer support.”

He added, “Dow Jones will continue to push for the unfair action against [the paper’s journalists] to be reversed and for their visas to be reinstated.”

China has periodically punished Western journalists by denying them entry to the country or by not renewing their visas. But expulsions are rare. Until acting against the Journal this week, the government hadn’t kicked out a credentialed journalist since 1998, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

The government’s action brought a rebuke from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said in a statement, “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.” Pompeo himself recently booted a reporter from NPR off his media plane in apparent retaliation for questions he didn’t like in an earlier interview with another NPR journalist.

The staff-written email said the Journal has been attacked for weeks for the headline by Chinese state media and by ordinary people its reporters have met. The state-run Global Times, for example, called the headline “racist” on Wednesday and demanded that the Journal apologize, as did a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

In a statement issued hours after the expulsions were announced, Lewis, the Journal’s publisher, expressed regret but did not offer a formal apology. “It was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece,” he said. “However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”

Lewis said in his statement that “the need for quality, trusted news reporting from China is greater than ever” and that the decision “to target our News department journalists greatly hinders that effort.”

The Journal is owned by News Corp., whose executive chairman and principal shareholder is media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The controversy comes amid steadily rising tensions between the United States and China over media issues.

China moved against the Journal reporters a day after the Trump administration designated five major Chinese news organizations with U.S. operations as official government entities, effectively labeling them propaganda outlets for Beijing. The designation under the Foreign Missions Act means the organizations will be treated as though they are diplomatic outposts of the Chinese government and subject to the same constraints.

The outlets include the official Xinhua News Agency; China Global Television Network; China Radio International; the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China; and the China Daily newspaper.

The latter entity produces English-language advertorial sections promoting China called “China Watch” that are carried in American newspapers, including The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.