SHANGHAI — Authorities in southern China have detained an American pilot who works for FedEx, the latest in a series of difficulties for American travelers and companies in China.
The authorities seized the pilot on Sept. 12 in the city of Guangzhou after they found 681 air-gun pellets in his luggage, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday. The pilot was trying to take a commercial flight to nearby Hong Kong, a day after flying an air freighter into FedEx’s huge hub in Guangzhou.
The pilot has been released on bail but remains in China under investigation for weapons smuggling, said Geng Shuang, the ministry’s spokesman, at a regular daily news briefing. Under Chinese regulations, a person released on bail typically has little ability to move around and must remain at a local hotel or residence until officials have completed an investigation.
In a statement, FedEx said authorities had found an object in its pilot’s luggage, though it did not specify what the object was.
“We are working with the appropriate authorities to gain a better understanding of the facts,” the company said in a statement, declining to comment further.
The Wall Street Journal, which reported the detention on Thursday, said the pilot was a United States Air Force veteran named Todd A. Hohn who lives in Hong Kong but was being kept at a Guangzhou-area hotel.
The Air Line Pilots Association International, the union representing most American pilots, declined to discuss the case, as did Mr. Hohn’s lawyer. The municipal foreign affairs office in Guangzhou declined to comment and referred questions to the police, who did not answer telephone calls.
FedEx is one of a number of companies that have been caught between Washington and Beijing as their trade war has intensified. But it is not clear whether the pilot’s detention was related to the company’s problems in China.
Mr. Geng said that the Chinese authorities had become aware that the pilot worked for FedEx only after finding the pellets in his luggage.
As trade frictions and other disputes fester between the United States and China, and as China itself becomes more authoritarian, more Americans have found themselves stuck in China and unable to leave. A Koch Industries executive was held in southern China and interrogated for days in June before being allowed to exit the country.
The State Department issued a travel advisory for China in January, warning Americans, particularly those with dual Chinese-American citizenship, that they may not be allowed to leave China if they go there.
A growing number of foreign companies, particularly American companies but also Canadian and European businesses, have responded by scrutinizing but not prohibiting travel to China by executives and employees.
But the quick release of the pilot, though 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.
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.
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 increased its medical checks on foreigners visiting or living in the country for any possession or recent use of drugs, using tests that can detecting drug use that may have taken place weeks or months before the foreigners came to China. The medical checks have 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.