The U.S. on Wednesday condemned China's decision to revoke the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters based in Beijing.
"Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech."
"The United States hopes that the Chinese people will enjoy the same access to accurate information and freedom of speech that Americans enjoy," Pompeo said.
The reporters were expelled after outrage in China over a recent opinion piece printed in the Journal, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said during a news briefing earlier Wednesday.
"Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racially discriminatory and malicious slander on China," the spokesman said. "In light of this, China has decided to revoke the press cards of the three Wall Street Journal correspondents in Beijing starting today."
The spokesman identified the piece as a Feb. 3 opinion column by Walter Russell Mead, the headline of which criticized China as "the Real Sick Man of Asia."
The move marks the first time since the era of Mao Zedong that China has expelled multiple journalists from one international news organization simultaneously, according to the Journal.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.
William Lewis, CEO of Dow Jones, the Journal's publisher and a unit of News Corp., said in a statement that "we regret" the anger that Mead's headline stoked in China. "It was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece," Lewis said. Mead is a Bard College professor and a scholar at the Hudson Institute.
But, he added, "today's decision to target our News department journalists greatly hinders" efforts to meaningfully cover the news from China.
"We respectfully request that China's Foreign Ministry reinstate the visas" for the three journalists, Lewis said.
The three reporters — Deputy Bureau Chief Josh Chin and reporters Chao Deng and Philip Wen — work for the paper's news division, which operates separately from its opinion department. Chin and Deng are U.S. nationals, while Wen is an Australian national, the Journal said.
The harsh reaction from Beijing came as China struggles not only to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak, but also to control the messaging surrounding the virus that has killed thousands and raised fears that a global pandemic is near.
The disease, which was first detected late last year in the city of Wuhan in China's Hubei province, has already taken a toll on China's business and manufacturing output. The impact of the disease has also spread to global markets, though stocks have fared better during the coronavirus outbreak than in other global medical emergencies.
In an email to staff reported by NBC News, the Journal's editor-in-chief, Matt Murray, vowed that his publication will continue writing about China "without fear or favor and with no agenda but the truth."
"We will continue in the coming days to push for this action to be reversed," Murray wrote.
Dow Jones did not immediately respond to CNBC's question about why its own report on China's expulsion of its reporters does not display the name of the author who wrote it.