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.
Deng Suilong, the older brother of Deng Silong, one of the two slain men, was part of the crowd that stormed Yantang city hall in protest. Officials described the deaths as freak accidents. Villagers said the men were deliberately killed. 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.