BEIJING (AP) -- The publishers of three major American newspapers have written an open letter asking China to reverse its recent decision to expel many of their correspondents working in the country.
The letter posted online Tuesday referred to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, saying the expulsions threaten access to information at a time when it is needed most. It was signed by the publishers of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
"This move — made in retaliation for recent expulsions by the United States government — is one that we would protest under any circumstances," they wrote. "But it is uniquely damaging and reckless as the world continues the struggle to control this disease, a struggle that will require the free flow of reliable news and information."
China said last week that most Americans working for the three publications would have to surrender their press cards within 10 days. The move followed a Trump administration decision to limit the number of visas for Chinese working for China's major state media in the U.S.
The U.S., in announcing the visa limit, cited increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment and intimidation of American and other foreign journalists working in China.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called his country's actions "essential countermeasures against the unreasonable oppression of the Chinese media organizations in the U.S." He said the American newspapers should take their complaint to the U.S. government.
Chinese media including the official Xinhua News Agency and the international arm of state broadcaster CCTV are now restricted to a total of 100 visas. Collectively, they employed about 160 Chinese in the U.S., meaning about 60 would have had to leave.
The Chinese action applies to Americans whose credentials are due to expire by the end of the year. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said at least 13 journalists would be affected. They are effectively expelled because their visas are tied to their press cards.
"The media is collateral damage in a diplomatic dispute between the Chinese and U.S. governments, threatening to deprive the world of critical information at a perilous moment," the letter from the newspaper publishers said.
The coronavirus pandemic started in China and has spread to most of the rest of the world.
The publishers urged the Chinese government to reverse the expulsions and ease what they called a growing crackdown on independent news organizations in China.