China on Wednesday announced it would expel American journalists from three major US newspapers in one of the communist government's biggest crackdowns on the foreign press, escalating a bitter row over media freedoms.
The move against The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal came as the superpowers also feuded over the coronavirus pandemic, with US President Donald Trump provocatively branding it the "Chinese virus".
Beijing said the expulsions were in retaliation to Washington's decision to cut the number of Chinese nationals allowed to work for its state-run media on American soil.
"They are legitimate and justified self-defense in every sense," the foreign ministry said of the expulsions.
It said the journalists at the three newspapers must hand back their credentials within 10 days, and highlighted they would also not be able to work in the semi-autonomous cities of Hong Kong and Macau.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) said the move means at least 13 American journalists currently working in the country would be expelled.
Beijing also ordered the papers, as well as Voice of America and Time magazine, to declare in writing their staff, finances, operations and real estate in China -- rules similar to those recently imposed on Chinese state media by Washington.
The foreign ministry said these were "entirely necessary and reciprocal" moves that China was "compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the US".
The row was ignited last month after China expelled three other Wall Street Journal reporters -- two Americans and one Australian -- over what it deemed a racist headline in the newspaper.
The headline, "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia", was on an opinion piece that the three journalists were not involved in writing.
Those were the first outright expulsions by China of a foreign journalist since 1998, according to the FCCC.
The row escalated as the US reclassified Chinese state-run media operating in the United States as foreign missions.
On Wednesday, the FCCC said it "deplores" the measure and warned: "There are no winners in the use of journalists as diplomatic pawns by the world's two pre-eminent economic powers."
- US asks China to reconsider -
Following the latest expulsions, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China was wrong to equate its state-run media, which answer to Beijing, and independent US news outlets that can freely report and ask critical questions.
"I regret China's decision today to further foreclose the world's ability to conduct the free press operations that, frankly, would be really good for the Chinese people in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency are what will save lives," Pompeo told reporters.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, called China's move a "grave mistake" and voiced hope that Washington and Beijing would quickly resolve the dispute to let journalists keep working.
The executive editor of The Washington Post, Marty Baron, said the move was "particularly regrettable because it comes in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis".
Matt Murray, editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal, called it an "unprecedented" attack on press freedom.
Rights groups also slammed the move, with PEN America saying it was "stunningly misguided and a grave risk to public safety."
Human Rights Watch expressed alarm that the ban on the expelled US journalists extended to working in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where the mini-constitution enshrines free speech.
The move is "further encroaching upon Hong Kong's limited freedom under the 'one country, two systems' arrangement", HRW said.
The coronavirus has already divided the US and China, with Trump and Pompeo repeatedly speaking of the "Chinese virus" or "Wuhan virus" -- a reference to the city where cases were first detected.
Beijing has condemned the use of those terms, saying it is "a kind of stigmatization".
But Trump has defended his terminology, telling reporters: "It did come from China, so I think it's very accurate."
Photo: Wall Street Journal reporters Philip Wen (left) and Josh Chin walk through Beijing Capital Airport on their way out of China (AFP Photo/GREG BAKER)