The move by the Trump administration to designate China's Confucius Institute as a foreign mission is aimed at both demonising and stigmatising normal operations of the language centres, an avenue of cooperation between both sides, Beijing said yesterday.
"We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to this," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, adding that Beijing reserved the right to respond.
Speaking at a regular press briefing, Mr Zhao said Washington's actions were motivated by "ideological prejudice and self-interest" and were unacceptable, adding that the Confucius Institute centres were a bridge to help people learn Chinese and understand China, and have contributed positively to cultural exchange between the US and China.
The Confucius Institute is funded by the Chinese government and the latest salvo from Washington comes as ties between the two giants continue to sour over issues including espionage, trade and technology.
Earlier this year, nine Chinese media outlets were also designated as "foreign missions" after Washington accused them of furthering China's propaganda aims.
Beijing yesterday urged the United States to abandon its "Cold War zero-sum mindset".
"Stop politicising these educational exchange programmes, interfering with normal cultural exchanges between China and the United States, and damaging mutual trust and cooperation between China and the US," said Mr Zhao.
The US has long viewed Confucius Institute centres, many of which operate in partnerships with local universities to teach the Chinese language and promote Chinese culture, as a soft power tool of Beijing.
Recognising the growing criticism, China has sought to rebrand the Confucius Institute. Chinese media reported last month that operations of the Confucius Institute will be transferred to a non-governmental organisation called the Chinese International Education Foundation.
Nationalist tabloid Global Times denounced the move to have Confucius Institute centres registered as foreign missions, saying it will have an "extensive and long-term impact" and cause universities to be hesitant about cooperating with them.
"The US is the most petty-minded of all big powers. Many Western countries have Confucius Institutes, but only the US, the world's sole superpower, feels threatened. Where is the US' confidence? Where is its cultural tolerance?" it said in an editorial yesterday.
Reacting to the latest developments, Chinese experts said that Washington was clearly out to push back against China's projection of soft power in the US.
People-to-people exchanges between both sides have also been a casualty as ties worsen.
This year, the US cancelled its Fulbright exchange programme in China and Hong Kong as well as the Peace Corps programme where American volunteers visit China to teach English to Chinese students.
Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong, who expects China to take retaliatory measures, said: "Trump's direction is very clear - he wants to restrict China's soft power projection... He is going against all traditional US policy against China."