Pack your bags, get out.

That was the message delivered Wednesday to three Wall Street Journal reporters in Beijing.

For the first time in the post-Mao era, China simultaneously expelled multiple reporters from the same news bureau.

Beijing cast the decision as a response to a Feb. 3 headline on a piece by an academic that referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia”— a framing many found offensive and poorly timed.

But the decision came a day after the State Department announced that it would now treat the U.S. operations of five Chinese news agencies as official government entities, sparking concern that U.S. news outlets could get caught in a broadening clash between Washington and Beijing.

Over the past 10 years, China has declined or delayed journalist visas for specific lines of coverage — investigations of the wealth of Chinese leaders, for instance, or reporting on repression in China’s northwest.

This time, they have gone after three reporters who work in the Beijing bureau for a headline on an opinion piece that was written and edited elsewhere by an entirely different team.

“This is absolutely an escalation,” said Jude Blanchette, head of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

It is not that the Communist Party cadres that monitor the foreign press do not understand the distinction between news and opinion. They do. But as they fight the coronavirus at home and face off with the Trump administration, they feel besieged and may be lashing out.

“There is a larger issue here,” Blanchette said, “which is the increasingly fractious, coarsening relationship between the U.S. and China, as they are increasingly locked in a tit-for-tat downward spiral.”

The three reporters — Josh Chin, Chao Deng and Philip Wen — have been told they have five days to leave.

The People’s Republic of China has long had a fractious relationship with the foreign press. But Wednesday’s move was called “unprecedented” by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

The last time a credentialed foreign correspondent was directly expelled was 1998. In the years since, Beijing has for the most part opted to let credentials expire rather than revoke them, a less directly confrontational strategy that allows for some degree of deniability.

In 2012, Beijing declined to renew the press credentials of Melissa Chan, then a reporter for Al Jazeera, or to allow another correspondent to take her place. Officials expressed displeasure with the network’s coverage but never specified why exactly Chan was kicked out.

The issue came up again in the aftermath of a pair investigations by the New York Times and Bloomberg News looking at the wealth of China’s leaders. After the Times published a 2012 investigation of the wealth of a senior leader’s family, China took aim at the Times’s Beijing bureau, blocking new hires and incoming reporters from getting visas rather than singling out the author of the investigative report.

China went on to delay accreditation for journalists from both news organizations, a move widely seen as an effort to intimidate news outlets into less-critical coverage.

More recently, Beijing has reacted forcefully to reporting about its treatment of minorities in the Xinjiang region in the country’s far northwest.

In 2015, Chinese authorities did not renew the credentials of French journalist Ursula Gauthier, who wrote a report critical of the country’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.

In a similar 2018 case, Megha Rajagopalan, a correspondent for BuzzFeed News, was denied a new visa after publishing reports on the surveillance and detention of members of the minority group.

The same year, a journalist for the Financial Times, Victor Mallet, was effectively expelled from Hong Kong after he defied a government request to cancel a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club with an activist who called for Hong Kong to declare independence from mainland China.

Then, in what now looks like an opening salvo, Beijing went after the Wall Street Journal.

In August, officials did not renew the credentials of Chun Han Wong, a Singaporean reporter, soon after he co-wrote a report about Australian authorities investigating a cousin of President Xi Jinping.

His co-author on the piece, Wen, continued working in China until Wednesday, when he and two colleagues were told to leave.

In a note to the Wall Street Journal newsroom, editor in chief Matt Murray said Wen, Deng and Chin represent “the best” of the Journal’s reporting in China.

“As experts who have devoted themselves and their talents to covering China, they have produced stories notable for their rigor, care, knowledge and potency,” he wrote. “Even now, Chao is in Wuhan, exposing herself to potential illness, to tell stories about the coronavirus.”

The news outlet, he said, would not be intimidated: “We will continue to write about China, without fear or favor and with no agenda but the truth.”