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Kevin Garratt, a Canadian Pentecostal pastor imprisoned for two years on suspicion of spying for Canada, was found guilty of espionage in a hearing Tuesday and deported back to Canada.Jack Chen/The Globe and Mail

Quid pro quo? In one sense, it might not matter whether Justin Trudeau's government made a deal to start talks with Beijing on an extradition treaty in exchange for the release of a Canadian imprisoned on trumped-up spy charges.

If it looks like a bargain was struck, it's likely to foster negative consequences, whether or not there was a real swap. And the whole case seems to offer Canada a hard lesson in hard Chinese bargaining.

Kevin Garratt, a Canadian missionary who lived in China for decades before being scooped up two years ago and detained on spy allegations, was let go last week. It was just after the PM went to China, and just before the visit to Ottawa of Chinese premier Li Keqiang, who arrives Wednesday.

Related: Ottawa to negotiate extradition treaty with China

Related: Trudeau's China visit is over. What did he accomplish?

But other things were going on. The Prime Minister's national-security adviser, Daniel Jean, was in Beijing for talks Sept. 12, and the two governments agreed to start discussions on an extradition treaty – something the Chinese have sought for years. The next day, a Chinese court convicted Mr. Garratt, gave him bail and ordered him to leave the country.

The Canadian government insists there were no concessions exchanged. There are China experts, like Brock University professor Charles Burton, who argue it smells like a quid pro quo – but there's no proof. But in this case, appearances matter.

It's bad if foreign governments believe it is what it looks like – that Ottawa will make concessions to release a Canadian jailed on phony charges.

It's bad if the Chinese think so, too. And it's possible they don't know for sure. Some former diplomats think it's unlikely senior Chinese officials would ever make the quid pro quo explicit. There were gives and asks, and the Chinese tend to suggest steps to build trust that leads to more co-operation – a leader's visit pushes each side to make concessions. It's possible Chinese officials think releasing Mr. Garratt helped start extradition talks, even if that wasn't the Canadian intention.

But deal or no deal, Beijing set up some hard bargaining that should offer a lesson.

Another big concession the Chinese delivered on Mr. Trudeau's visit was a reprieve from restrictions on Canadian canola exports, a $2-billion-a-year trade. The Chinese were slated to impose the measure in April, around the time Mr. Trudeau was first expected to visit, then delayed it till September, when he actually did. Trade disputes are common, but it seemed a little like an obstacle set up so the hosts could magnanimously clear it away.

And Mr. Garratt's imprisonment was certainly a made-in-Beijing problem that the Chinese made disappear, at the right time.

Now China has a start on an extradition treaty it has been seeking for 15 years. Chinese leaders want to show they are cracking down on corruption, and have repeatedly pressed Ottawa to return criminals. Accused smuggler Lai Changxing was returned in 2011 after a decade of demands. But the Chinese want a regular system. They have recently convinced other western countries to sign extradition treaties. The problem is that it is widely agreed that China's legal system lacks due process, detainees are abused and it's hard to know if a criminal prosecution is a trumped-up political persecution.

Even a treaty won't necessarily give the Chinese what they want. Toronto lawyer Joseph Neuberger said Chinese extradition cases will face stiff court challenges. He argues that a well-crafted treaty might at least provide safeguards – standards for evidence, or for monitoring extradited prisoners for mistreatment. But B.C. lawyer Clive Ansley argues it's fantasy to think foreigners can impose fair trials or monitor Chinese prisons.

Canada should at least remember the bargaining tactics. Mr. Trudeau told reporters Tuesday that starting talks isn't the same as signing an extradition treaty. Canada should ask about every safeguard and standard, and express a desire to learn from the experience of countries that have just signed treaties, like France and New Zealand. And then drag it out.

Make Mr. Garratt's case part of the bargaining again. It's hard to convince Canadians the Chinese justice system is fair when a Canadian's freedom can so clearly be made an obstacle or a gift. An extradition treaty is a hard sell, here, so it's reason to drag out the talks.

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