UCLA basketball players Cody Riley, left, LiAngelo Ball, right, and Jalen Hill, background center, leave the Los Angeles International Airport after flying home from China. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Over the past few days, a happy story has descended into farce.

It all started earlier this month, when three UCLA basketball players were detained in China, where their team was to play an exhibition game. The trio had stolen from three stores, including a Louis Vuitton, in Hangzhou, China.*

In the days that followed, the players were held in their hotel room.

Then, President Trump arrived in China as part of a 12-day Asia trip. He was informed about the players' plight by his staffers, who heard about it on CNN. According to Trump's account, he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping whether he knew anything about the “knuckleheads” being held in Hangzhou. Xi didn't, but he dispatched an aide to gather more information.

Soon after, the players were charged with misdemeanors, released from their hotel and flown back to California. Trump's chief of staff, John F. Kelly, told the New York Times that they were freed thanks to the intervention of Trump and the State Department.

Trump took to Twitter to demand praise for his efforts. At a news conference in the United States, the players obliged, thanking him for his help. The president has been crowing about his role on Twitter, saying he protected the players from five to 10 years in jail. But after the father of one of the players said he wasn't grateful, Trump wrote on Twitter that he should have left them in jail.

Trump is right that China's criminal justice system has a very high conviction rate and that the punishment for theft ranges widely, from a couple of days to 10 years in prison.

But experts say the basketball players would have almost certainly escaped China without jail time. When foreigners commit minor offenses, Chinese officials are more likely to deport them instead of imprisoning them. It's just not worth the diplomatic headache. “It’s nonsense,” Fu Hualing, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, told the New York Times of Trump’s assertion that he was solely responsible for the athletes’ release. “I would be surprised if they were even prosecuted.”

Jerome Cohen, an Asia expert and faculty director of New York University's U.S.-Asia Law Institute, told USA Today that it's “extremely unlikely” that the players would have been sentenced to any jail time. From the start, the players were given bail, a sign that Chinese officials weren't going to push for a full sentence.

Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University, echoed that assessment, saying that the players would probably not have faced a severe punishment. “On the basis of what I know, I think the most likely outcome is that the players get sent home with a stern warning, but without serving a formal sentence of detention,” Clarke wrote to USA Today in an email before the players' release. “They are already confined to their hotel. Perhaps the authorities will count that as a kind of time served.”

Indeed, early on in the players' detention, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that they would very probably receive an administrative punishment, meaning that they would face 20 days of house arrest and be banned from visiting China again.

Meanwhile, activists are asking why Trump didn't use his sway to advocate for the release of some of China's political prisoners, like Liu Xia, an artist, photographer and the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. She is being held in unofficial custody away from family and friends, punished simply for being the wife of Liu.

Activists also highlighted the plight of Ilham Tohti, an advocate for China's Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority that has long faced oppression. Tohti was imprisoned in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison. Wang Quanzhang, a human rights lawyer, was arrested in 2015 as part of a crackdown against human rights activists. No one has been permitted to visit him, and his wife says she doesn't even know whether he's alive.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the boys had stolen from three Louis Vuitton stores.