It was well past midnight when the peasants finished piling up fragrant tobacco leaves, more than 1,000 pounds of them stacked 10 feet high on the back of a rented truck. In the still darkness, they pulled slowly out of Shangdeng village, bumped along a dirt road for a few miles and then, the engine whining, turned onto the paved highway and picked up speed.
The smugglers had about $750 worth of the prized tobacco that peasants here in southern Hunan province call their "golden leaves." They were on their way to a predawn rendezvous with underground buyers, who would pay a 30 percent premium to get their hands on tobacco outside the official monopoly that is strictly enforced by the Chinese government.
The peasants of Shangdeng, who cultivate the soft slopes 200 miles south of Changsha, the provincial capital, were not making the run down China's Thunder Road for the first time. Tobacco smuggling has become a tradition here. But in the early morning of Aug. 30, it went quickly and tragically wrong.
Someone -- a spy, villagers said -- had tipped off the local anti-smuggling squad. About 20 policemen and Communist Party and government officials from nearby Yantang town lay in ambush only a mile down the highway. According to an official account, the bootleg tobacco was seized according to law. But in the process, the account acknowledged, two of the smugglers, Deng Jianlan, 33, and Deng Silong, 38, ended up dead, their badly damaged bodies left beside the road.
Local officials described the deaths as a pair of freak accidents. But the villagers of Shangdeng said they were convinced the two men were killed deliberately by members of the anti-smuggling squad who were carrying iron bars. Outraged by the news, relatives, friends and fellow smugglers gathered shortly after dawn in front of Yantang city hall, demanding an explanation from municipal authorities with jurisdiction over local villages.
The white-tiled building was padlocked tight and nobody came out to face the crowd, recalled Deng Suilong, 54, Deng Silong's older brother. The number of protesters swelled quickly to several hundred, he said, which meant that most of the men from among Shangdeng's 1,000 residents were on hand and angry. "They were all yelling and screaming," said one of the men present, who declined to provide his name for fear of prosecution.
Their rage growing, the peasants broke down the door to city hall and burst inside, witnesses said. They rushed up to the main offices on the second floor, and some of them began sacking everything in sight. The building's blue-tinted windows were shattered on several of the five stories, the witnesses said, and tables, chairs and desks were broken into pieces.
When the Yantang Communist Party secretary, Liu Tangxiong, showed up with several other officials to try to calm the mob, a local official said, the peasants knocked his front teeth out and continued their rampage unhindered until it was time to go home for a late breakfast.
The violence in Yantang, although small in scale, was part of what officials say is a growing trend of assaults against police, officials and government property in China. The Public Security Ministry estimates that more than 1,800 policemen were attacked in the line of duty in the first six months of this year, sharply up from previous years. A ministry spokesman, Wu Heping, was quoted by the official party organ, the People's Daily, as saying that 23 policemen were killed in a broad range of clashes with "criminal suspects or people intending to interfere with law enforcement through violence."
Much of the damage to cars or buildings, and injuries to police and other officials, occurred during riots and other violent disturbances that have broken out in towns and villages across China with increasing frequency. The ministry estimates that 74,000 such incidents erupted in 2004, involving 3.76 million people.
The unrest has become a major concern for the government of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Most of the uprisings have exploded in reaction to economic complaints, such as land confiscations or pollution, as China evolves swiftly but unevenly under the impetus of market reforms. But the disturbances -- and the willingness to clash with police or civilian officials -- also have revealed a growing sense of disillusionment with local Communist Party administrations, suggesting a politically significant break in trust between those who govern China's towns and villages and those they govern.
As the truck started down the darkened highway at 1:30 that morning, three migrant workers and Shangdeng's own Deng Xizai were jammed into the front cab, the farmers said. In the rear, sitting atop a dark green tarp covering the tobacco leaves, were Deng Jianlan and Deng Silong.
Although they shared the surname Deng, the three villagers were only vaguely related. As often happens in small Chinese villages, most of Shangdeng's families have the same family name, denoting their roots in the same place.
A fourth villager rode ahead on a motorcycle, scouting for trouble. In the dark, he sputtered right by the ambush, however, and the officials sprang their trap as planned, halting the truck only a few minutes after it started down the highway.
Deng Xizai and the three migrant workers were dragged from the cab, the farmers recounted. The hired hands were allowed to go their way, they said, but Deng Xizai was stuffed into a small government car, one of four that were lying in wait for the bootleggers.
Deng Xizai immediately offered to pay a fine, the farmers said, in what they described as the usual way Yantang officials and Shangdeng farmers settled things when smugglers were caught in the act. Local officials said such confiscations and fines are almost routine in southern Hunan's tobacco country. Twenty-nine truckloads have been taken into custody so far this harvest season.
But this time, things were different. Farmers said Deng Xizai and the motorcycle lookout later told them that the anti-smuggling squad carried iron bars as weapons and that officials refused to discuss a fine. Instead, they kept Deng Xizai in custody and assigned a Yantang township driver to get behind the wheel of the truck and drive it to the local tobacco monopoly office, according to an official account. The officials did not know that Deng Jianlan and Deng Silong were still atop the load of tobacco, huddling under the tarp and unseen in the predawn darkness.
An unusual pair of accidents happened next, a statement issued by local officials said, so unusual that peasants here said the official version defies credulity.
First, the statement said, Deng Jianlan jumped off the moving truck, but fell under the wheels and was crushed to death. Then, it went on, Deng Silong leapt from the truck about two miles down the road as it pulled into a toll station, also falling under the wheels. He was seriously injured and died soon afterward, according to the official statement.
"It was so dark outside that [the driver] did not notice at all," it added.
By that time, the motorcycle lookout, Deng Guoping, had started calling farmers on his mobile phone, alerting them to the confiscation and beginning to describe what he had seen from the distance. Relying on his account and another by Deng Xiazai, who was in one of the official cars, the farmers said the two dead villagers in fact were victims of a beating administered by the anti-smuggling squad.
For unexplained reasons, the truck on which they were riding pulled over to the side of the road for about 20 minutes soon after the township driver got behind the wheel, they said, during which time anti-smuggling police wielding iron bars apparently killed Deng Jianlan and Deng Silong. "We believe that's when it happened," said Deng Suilong, Deng Silong's brother.
The bodies were then dumped by the roadside at two different spots and officials concocted the story about how both men were crushed under the wheels as a coverup, they alleged.
"We always have had people who smuggle tobacco and get fined," said Deng Qiu, a former member of the elected village council, "but this is the first time anything like this has happened. We lost two men."
Deng Anlong, 49, another of Deng Silong's brothers and a member of the current elected village council, said Deng Guoping came to his house about 4 a.m. with the news, and the two immediately went to investigate. They found Deng Jianlan by the side of the road with the top of his head "all gone," he said, and his body covered by wounds that seemed to them to be the result of a beating. Moreover, only a tiny pool of blood lay under the body, Deng Anlong recounted, suggesting it had been put there after bleeding out.
Deng Silong was discovered a short time later as the official cars pulled up alongside the truck at the toll station. Liu, the party secretary who later would get his teeth knocked out trying to pacify the rioting peasants, was startled when he caught sight of the mortally injured farmer, according to what Deng Xizai told his fellow villagers later.
"My God, something awful has happened," Deng Xizai quoted him as saying.
Stability or Revenge?
The afternoon after their rampage at Yantang city hall, Shangdeng's peasants were confronted with a sight they said they had never seen. Several trucks arrived along the dirt road, they said, carrying two dozen policemen and local officials wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying shields and riot batons.
The officials said their mission was to guarantee stability and investigate who had ransacked the town hall, the farmers recalled. But more than 200 peasants came from their houses and surrounded the authorities, the farmers said. The police just stood in a line for a few hours before remounting the trucks and bouncing back down the road.
"We've never seen anything like that before, only on TV," an elderly woman said as Deng Suilong recounted the story.
Following that attempt, Yantang sent civilian officials to the village to persuade the peasants to give up their allegations of wrongdoing in the interests of stability. At the same time, the two dead men's families were paid compensation, $21,250 for Deng Silong's family and $22,500 for Deng Jianlan's.
Although the visit by camouflage-clad riot police and the payments of such large sums of money were firsts here, the rebellious farmers of Shangdeng have a long history of trouble with the authorities in Yantang.
The China National Tobacco Corp., which produces 1.8 trillion cigarettes a year, has long been the world's biggest producer. Since the government relies on it for a significant chunk of the budget, officials at all levels take the monopoly on tobacco trading seriously.
According to law, farmers here can grow what they want -- some plant rice and other crops -- but if they grow tobacco, they must sign a contract with the local tobacco-buying station. Only when they meet a production quota set in the contract, the rules say, can they look for other buyers at higher prices. When the truck set out on its bootleg run Aug. 30, farmers acknowledged, Shangdeng had met only about 80 percent of its quota for the season.
But law enforcement was not the only reason Yantang's party and government leaders were waiting that night, the peasants here said. Deng Suilong, Deng Silong's older brother, was a particularly active elected vice mayor of the village from the year 2000 until this spring, they said, improving the dirt road leading in from the highway and taking the lead on other improvements.
In the process, Deng Qiu, the former member of the elected village council, said he refused to abide by the practice of paying bribes to Yantang officials to get their approval for funding the projects. That, he said, earned him their enmity, and they struck back during this spring's elections.
Although Deng Qiu said he was again elected vice mayor, Yantang authorities ruled the vote invalid and annulled the results. At the meeting where the decision was announced, he recalled, his friend Deng Silong stood up and shouted insults at the party and government officials from Yantang, accusing them of manipulating the election because they did not get the bribes they felt they were due.
"So that's why they were gunning for him when he was smuggling tobacco that night," Deng Qiu said.