The College Board has earned headlines recently for revising the SAT exam and supporting Common Core state education standards. But that’s not all the organization does with its outsize influence on American education. This month it announced plans to teach Chinese language and culture in 20 school districts across the U.S.—in partnership with China’s state-run Confucius Institutes, which are known to mix cultural exchange with Communist Party propaganda.

The College Board website doesn’t mention that Confucius Institutes are Chinese government programs. Nor does it admit to any concerns that Hanban—the Chinese state agency that supervises, funds and provides staff to Confucius Institutes—may bully teachers or censor lessons within American classrooms.

Instead, College Board President David Coleman waxes poetic about the venture: “Hanban is just like the sun. It lights the path to develop Chinese teaching in the U.S.,” he said at a conference in Los Angeles on May 8. “The College Board is the moon. I am so honored to reflect the light that we’ve gotten from Hanban.” These remarks, so far reported only by Chinese state media, were confirmed by the College Board.

Americans may be interested in a fuller picture of Hanban and its Confucius network, which demonstrates the promise and the peril of doing academic business with Beijing.

In a mere 10 years Hanban has established nearly 1,100 Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in 120 countries, with more than 450 at U.S. grade schools and colleges. Chinese media boast that these programs today reach more than 220,000 American students, a reflection of the booming demand for Chinese-language training as China rises in economic and strategic importance. With U.S. education dollars so often wasted, it’s no surprise that administrators appreciate Beijing’s offer of money (often $150,000 per year), plus instructors and teaching materials.

In return, Beijing wants a PR boost. Confucius Institutes “are an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup,” said Politburo Standing Committee ideology czar Li Changchun in 2009. Hence the online materials (since deleted from the Hanban website) that blamed America for drawing China into the Korean War by bombing Chinese villages, or the account still there that identifies Taiwan as “China’s largest island.”

Hence also the self-censorship by educators attuned to the sensitivities of their funders in Beijing. “Look, there are topics that are best not to engage in,” Australian Education Department official Phil Lambert admitted during a 2011 controversy over K-12 Confucius Institutes in New South Wales. Obvious sore spots include the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the Dalai Lama and Taiwan. Then there are the “seven taboos” that Beijing last year warned its domestic university professors to shun, including freedom of speech, universal values, judicial independence and the mistakes of the Communist Party.

After North Carolina State University rescinded an invitation to the Dalai Lama in 2009, officially citing logistical difficulties, Provost Warwick Arden cited pressure from the campus’s Confucius Institute director: “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications. Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina.”

The University of Chicago’s Theodore Foss said last year that he could post a Dalai Lama portrait in his personal office but never in the campus’s Confucius Institute, which he directs. At the University of Maryland’s Confucius Institute in 2009, a Chinese diplomat opened an exhibit of Tibetan photography with remarks condemning the Dalai Lama.

In Beijing the Confucius network reports to a council headed by Vice Premier Liu Yandong —appropriately enough, a former leader of the United Front Work Department responsible for keeping China’s nominally independent organizations loyal to the ruling Communist Party. The council makes sure that Confucius programs honor their contracts, typically including requirements that employees obey the laws not only of their host country but of authoritarian China.

In 2012 Confucius Institute instructor Sonia Zhao charged that Canada’s McMaster College was “giving legitimation to discrimination” because her contract barred her from identifying with Falun Gong, a spiritual movement criminalized and persecuted by Beijing since 1999. McMaster agreed and last year refused to renew its Confucius contract. Ms. Zhao, a Chinese national, has received asylum in Canada.

Confucius Institutes are “managed by people operating out of [China’s] embassy or consulates,” charged the head of Canada’s intelligence agency, Richard Fadden, in 2010. Instructors sent to Canada by Beijing, he added, have even “organized demonstrations against the Canadian government with respect to some of our policies concerning . . . what are called the five poisons: Taiwan, Falun Gong and others.” Today Mr. Fadden is Canada’s deputy defense minister.

Beyond McMaster, though, pushback against Confucius programs has been limited. The Canadian Association for University Teachers last year called on all schools to cut Confucius ties, as did Tibetan and Uighur rights groups. The University of Manitoba and the University of British Columbia both recently rejected Confucius proposals, and more than 100 University of Chicago faculty have petitioned to close their institute. But otherwise no revolt seems to be brewing at Canadian or U.S. schools.

The College Board’s new programs may be an occasion to reconsider. When I asked, the College Board declined to say whether the content of contracts between American schools and the Chinese government would be publicly available. This might not sit well with parents and lawmakers in New York, Ohio, Florida and the other states expecting new Confucius Institutes or Confucius Classrooms. Neither would lessons that whitewash China’s record on free speech or religious liberty. Asked about Chinese government pressure on U.S. classrooms, College Board spokeswoman Katherine Levin replied only that, “There is no mandated curriculum, lesson plan, or course material required to participate in the program.”

Studying Chinese is an invaluable economic and cultural opportunity. Instead of promising the sun, moon and stars, the College Board and other policy makers might demonstrate how they plan to expand Chinese education without propagandizing for Beijing or discriminating against victims of Chinese repression.

Mr. Feith is a Journal editorial writer based in Hong Kong.