BEIJING — China ordered the expulsion of three Wall Street Journal correspondents Wednesday in retaliation for a column headline that Beijing deemed racist, a dramatic escalation in the Communist Party's efforts to silence criticism abroad as well as at home.

While the Foreign Ministry linked the expulsions to a Feb. 3 opinion piece by Walter Russell Mead that referred to China as the “sick man of Asia,” the move followed a decision by the United States a day earlier to designate five major Chinese media outlets as government entities.

American officials had warned correspondents in China working for U.S. media outlets that they could be affected by the designation.

China’s Foreign Ministry “reserves the right” to take further actions both against the Wall Street Journal and in response to the United States’ designation, spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in announcing the expulsions.

The announcement represented a clear signal from China, whose government has tightened censorship and repression in recent years. In previous cases in which Beijing has evicted foreign journalists, it has usually allowed their existing press credentials to expire and then declined to renew them, a practice tantamount to expulsion but without the provocation.

The authorities also appeared to be attempting to stoke nationalist outrage in China at a time of extreme duress for the ruling Communist Party. The party has faced widespread criticism over its response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, which began in the city of Wuhan in December but did not elicit formal acknowledgment or emergency-response measures from the ruling party until the third week of January.

The Journal said the three correspondents affected by Wednesday’s action were Deputy Bureau Chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both U.S. citizens, and reporter Philip Wen, an Australian national. They have been ordered to leave China within five days, it said.

A statement from William Lewis, the chief executive of Dow Jones and publisher of the Journal, said “we are deeply disappointed” by China’s decision and urged the foreign ministry to reinstate the visas for the three journalists.

“This opinion piece was published independently from the WSJ newsroom and none of the journalists being expelled had any involvement with it,” the statement noted. “In line with best practice, we enforce a complete separation between our News and Opinion departments.”

A similar policy of separate news and opinion departments is enshrined at most U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Post.

Lewis’s statement added: “Our opinion pages regularly publish articles with opinions that people disagree — or agree with — and it was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece. However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”

Mead, a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College who is a regular contributor to the paper, alluded to this on Twitter earlier this month, as the Foreign Ministry made increasingly heated remarks about the headline.

Among the reporters ordered to leave, Deng at the time of the announcement was in Wuhan, the locked-down city in Hubei province at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic. She has been filing reports on how ordinary people are coping and how Communist Party officials are trying to contain the virus.

Wen was one of the two authors of a report published last year that detailed allegations that a cousin of Chinese leader Xi Jinping was involved in high-stakes gambling and potential money laundering in Australia. The other reporter on that story, Chun Han Wong, a Singaporean national who had covered Chinese politics out of the paper’s Beijing bureau since 2014, was effectively expelled when his press credentials expired and were not renewed in August.  

The title of the February column at issue is a reference to a period around the middle of the 19th century until the early 20th century when a weak China, crippled by infighting, was carved up by colonial powers including Japan, Germany, France and Britain. China calls this period the “century of humiliation” and has vowed during the trade war with the United States that it will not be humiliated again.

The phrase echoed the moniker given at the time to the Ottoman Empire, which was called “the sick man of Europe.” More recently, the label has been applied to Britain, first during the economic malaise of the 1970s and more recently as the country was wrangling with its exit from the European Union.

But in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry latched onto the Journal’s headline with unbridled fury, repeatedly accusing the paper of using racially discriminatory language and offending the Chinese people. The Journal website is blocked by China’s Great Firewall, meaning that readers within the country cannot access its website without software to make it appear that they are outside China.

“China demands the WSJ recognize the severity of its mistake, make an official apology and hold the persons involved accountable,” Geng told reporters Wednesday in a briefing conducted over the WeChat messaging app because public gatherings are banned during the coronavirus outbreak.

“However, regrettably, what the WSJ has done so far is nothing but parrying and dodging its responsibility. It has neither issued an official apology nor informed us of what it plans to do with the persons involved,” Geng said.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China condemned the decision, describing it in a statement as "an extreme and obvious attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate foreign news organizations."

The club, whose members include two Washington Post correspondents, called the simultaneous expulsions "an unprecedented form of retaliation against foreign journalists in China."

This was the first outright expulsion of a foreign correspondent since 1998, according to the FCCC's tally. Since 2013, the year after Xi became China's leader, at least nine journalists have been effectively expelled by not having their press credentials renewed, meaning they had to leave the country.

"Many of those evicted from China are fair and talented journalists who worked hard to bring unbiased, informative reports to their audiences and to understand China," the FCCC said.

Some analysts speculated that the decision was immediate retaliation for the State Department’s decision Tuesday to designate five of China’s foremost media outlets as official government entities under the Foreign Missions Act, meaning they will be treated as though they are diplomatic outposts of the Chinese government and subject to the same constraints.

American officials have become increasingly concerned that Chinese authorities are using journalists to do government work in the United States and have sought to monitor them more closely.

A day earlier, two State Department officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity under department rules for briefing reporters, had declined to discuss internal considerations on whether Beijing would retaliate against foreign reporters working in China.

“We’re painfully aware of the very tough operating environment that U.S. and other foreign journalists operate under in China,” one U.S. official said in announcing the designation Tuesday. “It’s already the case that freedom of the press is under severe siege in the People’s Republic of China.”