China says it has revoked the press credentials of three reporters for the Wall Street Journal over a headline for an opinion column deemed by Beijing to be racist and slanderous.

The move follows a complaint over the headline, which referred to the coronavirus outbreak in China and called the country the “Real Sick Man of Asia”.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the February 3 article by Bard College Professor Walter Russel Mead “smears the efforts of the Chinese government and people on fighting (the virus) epidemic”.

“The editors used such a racially discriminatory title, triggering indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community,” he said.

Like most foreign media, the Wall Street Journal is unavailable in China and its website and stories are blocked by online censors.

China has in recent years refused to issue or renew credentials for some foreign journalists, but this is the first time in recent memory that it has revoked their documents, effectively expelling them from the country.

That reflects a new hard line in foreign affairs in which Beijing has sought to exact economic and diplomatic costs from companies and countries that do not follow its policies over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, human rights and other sensitive issues.

President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly said China will make no concessions when it comes to national territory, sovereignty or dignity.

In one recent case, the country cut commercial ties with the NBA after an official with the Houston Rockets basketball team tweeted support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters whom China describes as separatists.

The Journal identified the three journalists as deputy bureau chief Josh Chin, reporter Chao Deng — both US citizens — and reporter Philip Wen, an Australian.

They have been given five days to leave the country, according to Jonathan Cheng, the Journal’s China bureau chief.

Last autumn, Chinese authorities declined to renew the press credentials of Beijing-based Journal reporter Chun Han Wong, a Singaporean, a month after he and another Journal reporter wrote a story detailing an Australian investigation into the alleged links of Mr Xi’s cousin to high-stakes gambling, money laundering and suspected organised crime.

“We resolutely oppose certain foreign journalists’ evil intention to smear and attack China,” the foreign ministry said at the time.

Following the publication of Prof. Mead’s opinion column this month, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said he should be “ashamed of your words, your arrogance, your prejudice and your ignorance”.

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