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Rowers paddle down the Charles River past the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Ma., on March 7, 2017.Charles Krupa/The Associated Press

The Chinese government has issued a warning to students and academics about studying in the United States in what observers called the latest reprisal in a deepening set of frictions between the world’s two largest economic powers.

China’s Ministry of Education cited a series of difficulties for those travelling to the United States for studies, including rising rates of visa rejections and declining visa durations.

In a brief warning posted to its website, the ministry said it “wants to remind all students and academics to reinforce risk assessment, improve the awareness of prevention and prepare accordingly before going abroad to study.”

More than 360,000 Chinese students were registered to study in the United States in the 2017-18 school year – a third of all foreign students there – and the announcement sent a chill through the education sector in China on Monday.

“I cannot emphasize enough what a major sea change this represents,” said Jiang Xueqin, a Harvard researcher and education consultant in China.

“This warning is an official declaration that China will use both formal and informal mechanisms to decrease the number of Chinese students studying in the United States.” The stakes, he said, are high. “The government is saying that in a time of war – because they see this as a war between the U.S. and China – everyone is a soldier,” students included.

Chinese education authorities have, in recent years, issued warnings about studying in a series of countries – last year, for example, urging students in Australia to be “vigilant” after several students were assaulted.

But the cautionary note about the United States comes as Beijing and Washington take increasingly punitive measures against each other, as the trade war escalates into new attempts to inflict economic damage. The United States has raised tariffs and placed tech giant Huawei on a trade blacklist that means it cannot do business with U.S. companies without special permission. China has responded with its own tariffs, and is preparing an “unreliable entity list,” while state media have taken aim at Fedex, the shipping company, after several packages addressed to Huawei in China were diverted to other countries.

Foreign students add US$42.4-billion to the U.S. economy, according to an estimate by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State. Chinese students alone brought US$13.9-billion in economic activity.

But Xu Yongji, a spokesperson at China’s education ministry, said Monday that the U.S. rate of rejection of students funded by the China Scholarship Council has risen from 3.2 per cent last year to 13.5 per cent this year. He described accusations of “non-traditional espionage” levelled against Chinese students and scholars.

China remains willing to “strengthen educational exchanges and co-operation,” he said.

But “all of the actions mentioned above have caused damage to the dignity of Chinese students studying abroad and also seriously hurt the feeling of Chinese people,” Mr. Xu said.

On China’s Twitter-like Weibo social network, people voiced bitterness toward the United States.

”It’s better to not go to the U.S. at all,” one wrote. “Chinese companies no longer consider overseas students attractive so it might be better to study and make one’s living in China.”

“When does U.S. plan to publish its next Chinese Exclusion Act?” wrote another. “We are standing on the turning point of history,” added a third person.

“I’m worried for other students who don’t yet have their visas,” said Katherine Zhang, 22, a finance major at Suzhou University. She has been accepted to a master’s program at a U.S. university – she declined to name which one – but said she expects other students to begin more seriously considering other countries for overseas study.

For herself, meanwhile, “Personally, I will follow the steps suggested by [the] government – that is to get prepared and do risk evaluation,” she said.

The United States, however, has long held a potent allure for Chinese students. Institutions such as Harvard, Yale and MIT define the “famous brand” of schools that are the object of educational ambition for many Chinese families. Even the daughter of President Xi Jinping studied at Harvard.

For now, the desire to study in the United States ”will stay the same more or less,” said Shiny Wang, the director of college counselling at Tsinghua University High School in Beijing. Counsellors emphasize fit, steering students toward schools and programs best suited to their needs, regardless of country.

However, he said, ”In the U.S., there are more choices with more opportunities and possibilities.”

With reports from Alexandra Li