China Detains FedEx Pilot Amid Rising U.S.-China Tensions

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SHANGHAI — Authorities in southern China have detained an American pilot who works for FedEx, in the latest in a series of difficulties for American travelers and companies in China.

The pilot had been waiting to catch a commercial flight out of the city of Guangzhou, where FedEx has a huge hub. In a statement, FedEx said authorities had found an object in his luggage, though it did not specify what the object was.

The pilot was released on bail, FedEx said. “We are working with the appropriate authorities to gain a better understanding of the facts,” it said in a statement and declined to comment further.

The Wall Street Journal, which reported the detention on Thursday, said that the pilot had been carrying nonmetallic pellets used in air guns, and that he was a United States Air Force veteran named Todd A. Hohn who had been trying to catch a flight to his home in nearby Hong Kong.

But the quick release of the pilot, although without allowing him to leave the country, may indicate that China is not eager to turn him into a bilateral issue, said James Zimmerman, a partner in the Beijing office of Perkins Coie, a global law firm.

“The fact that he was released is a critically important message and a positive sign — Beijing probably ordered his release to minimize the significance of the issue, and this is an indication that Beijing doesn’t want this case to be a huge distraction.” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Mr. Zimmerman said that China does not have a bail system as it is generally understood in the West. China relies more on severe travel restrictions on people who are released from detention but remain under investigation.

The detention comes as the United States and China are trying to reach at least a partial truce in their 15-month trade war. Chinese officials have been eager to head off further tariffs that President Trump has planned to impose on Oct. 15 and Dec. 15, but are also loath to agree to the broad Chinese policy changes sought by the Trump administration.

It was unclear on Friday if Chinese authorities had deliberately targeted the pilot because he worked for FedEx. The detention came as Chinese airports have visibly increased security measures in recent months. The authorities have paid particular attention to travelers going to or from Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory where large and increasingly violent protests have taken place every weekend this summer.

China has strict laws not just against the possession of weapons but also against the possession of any kind of ammunition.

FedEx has had a series of difficulties in China in recent months. China has accused FedEx of delaying shipments last May by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant accused by American officials of working with Chinese intelligence — accusations that Huawei denies.

FedEx has also been working with Chinese authorities to investigate how one of its American clients was allowed to send a gun to a sporting goods store in southeastern China. The gun was also detected and stopped by Chinese authorities.

Chinese nationalists have called in recent weeks for FedEx to be included on a list of “unreliable entities” that the country’s Commerce Ministry has been drafting. The drafting has begun in response to the United States Commerce Department’s decision to begin putting Huawei on an “entities list” of foreign companies to which goods can only be exported from the United States with special licenses.

Cathay Pacific, a large airline based in Hong Kong, has separately come under heavy scrutiny by the Chinese government after some of its employees expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. China threatened to revoke the airline’s access to its airspace unless Cathay reined in its employees.

Cathay Pacific and FedEx are two of the largest airlines hauling Chinese exports to the United States. Much of China’s electronics exports, particularly higher-value items like iPhones, travel by air.

In addition to scrutinizing travelers to and from Hong Kong very closely, the Chinese government has also begun checking foreigners visiting or living in the country for any possession or recent use of drugs, sometimes even weeks or months before the foreigners came to China. That has also produced a series of detentions.

Travel experts now strongly advise anyone going to China to carry prescription medicines in their original containers, and not to carry any prescription medicines that may be illegal in China, like prescription cannabis.

FedEx is a well-known company in China as well as in the United States. By coincidence, HBO showed in China on Thursday night the Tom Hanks movie “Cast Away,” the fictional story of a FedEx manager marooned on a Pacific island for years.

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