US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped up the pressure on China by ordering the center which runs Confucius Institutes in the United States to register as a foreign mission.
"The PRC (People's Republic of China) has taken advantage of America's openness to undertake large scale and well-funded propaganda efforts and influence operations in this country," Pompeo said in a statement Thursday.
"Today, the Department of State designated the Confucius Institute US Center as a foreign mission of the PRC, recognizing CIUS for what it is: an entity advancing Beijing's global propaganda and malign influence campaign on US campuses," he said.
"Confucius Institutes are funded by the PRC and part of the Chinese Communist Party's global influence and propaganda apparatus."
China has opened a total of 75 Confucius Institutes in the United States where Americans can learn Chinese and about Chinese culture. Sixty-five of them are located within US universities.
Pompeo said the United States "wants to ensure that students on US campuses have access to Chinese language and cultural offerings free from the manipulation of the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies."
Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell said the designation concerned the main Confucius Institute center.
"This is the organization that actually manages, supports and funds Confucius Centers in the US," Stilwell said.
"This is not going after Confucius centers per se," he said, "although we would ask that universities again take a hard look at what those kids are doing on their campuses and then decide for themselves if this is something that supports and advances academic freedom and our democratic values or not."
"We're not closing it," Stilwell said. "We're simply designating them as what they are, as foreign missions."
Beijing criticized the move, saying the US was "demonizing and stigmatizing the normal operation of China-US cooperation projects."
"We urge the US to... stop politicizing educational exchange programs, stop interfering with normal people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and stop undermining China-US mutual trust and cooperation," said foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a regular press briefing Friday.
The US move comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and China over the coronavirus pandemic, which President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed on Beijing.
The United States last month ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. China retaliated by ordering the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu.
Negotiators from the two countries are set to meet Saturday to discuss their "phase one" trade deal reached earlier this year.