One-child policy

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One-child policy
Chinese family with one child at Beihai Park, Beijing.jpg
A one-child Chinese family at a park in Beijing
Traditional Chinese計劃生育政策
Simplified Chinese计划生育政策
Literal meaningfamily planning policy
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One-child policy
Chinese family with one child at Beihai Park, Beijing.jpg
A one-child Chinese family at a park in Beijing
Traditional Chinese計劃生育政策
Simplified Chinese计划生育政策
Literal meaningfamily planning policy

The one-child policy, officially the family planning policy,[1] was the population control policy of the People's Republic of China. Many demographers consider the term "one-child" a misnomer, as the policy allows many exceptions: for example, rural families may have a second child if the first child is a girl or is disabled and ethnic minorities are exempt. Families in which neither parent has siblings are also allowed to have two children.[2] Foreigners living in China and residents of the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau are also exempt from the policy. In 2007, approximately 35.9% of China's population was subject to the one-child restriction.[3] In November 2013, the Chinese government announced that it would further relax the policy by allowing families to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.[2][4]

The policy was introduced in 1979 to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China.[5] Demographers estimate that the policy averted 200 million births between 1979 and 2009.[6] The policy is controversial both within and outside China for many reasons, including because of the manner in which the policy has been implemented and because of concerns about negative social consequences.[7] It has been implicated in an increase in forced abortions,[8] female infanticide, and under-reporting[9] of female births, and has been suggested as a possible cause behind China's sex imbalance. Nonetheless, a 2008 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center reported that 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy.[10]

The policy is enforced at the provincial level through fines that are imposed based on the income of the family and other factors. "Population and Family Planning Commissions" (计划生育委员会) exist at every level of government to raise awareness and carry out registration and inspection work.[11]


Population in China
19821008.2+ 313.6
20001265.8+ 257.6
20101339.7+ 73.9
Source: Census of China
Population of China, showing growth despite the one-child policy


During the period of Chairman Mao's leadership in the People's Republic of China, the crude birth rate fell from 37 to 20 per thousand,[12] infant mortality declined from 227/1000 births in 1949 to 53/1000 in 1981, and life expectancy dramatically increased from around 35 years in 1949 to 66 years in 1976.[12][13] Until the 1960s, the government encouraged families to have as many children as possible[14] because of Mao's belief that population growth empowered the country, preventing the emergence of family planning programs earlier in China's development.[15] The population grew from around 540 million in 1949 to 940 million in 1976.[16] Beginning in 1970, citizens were encouraged to marry at later ages and have only two children. Although the fertility rate began to decline significantly, future population growth proved overwhelming and the one-child policy was announced by Chinese leaders. The one child policy had been planned as early as 1977, although it was not mandated nationwide until 1979.[17][18][19]

The system of the work unit (Danwei) was crucial to implementing the one-child policy, as workers' reproductive behaviors could be monitored. As part of China's planned-birth policy, unit supervisors monitor the fertility of married women and may decide whose turn it is to have a baby. In 2003, it became possible to marry or divorce someone without needing authorization from the work unit.[20]


The policy was managed by the National Population and Family Planning Commission under the central government since 1981. The Ministry of Health of the People's Republic of China and the National Health and Family Planning Commission were made defunct and a new single agency National Health and Family Planning Commission took over national health and family planning policies in 2013. The agency reports to the State Council.

Current status[edit]

The limit has been strongly enforced in urban towns, but the actual implementation varies from location to location.[21] In most rural areas, families are allowed to apply to have a second child if their first-born is a daughter[22] or suffers from physical disability, mental illness, or intellectual disability.[23] Second children are subject to birth spacing (usually 3 or 4 years). Additional children will result in large fines. Families violating the policy are required to pay monetary penalties and may possibly be denied bonuses at their workplace. Children born in overseas countries are not counted under the policy if they do not obtain Chinese citizenship. Chinese citizens returning from abroad are allowed to have a second child.[24]

As of 2007, 35.9% of the population were subject to a strict one-child limit. 52.9% were permitted to have a second child if their first was a daughter; 9.6% of Chinese couples were permitted two children regardless of their sex; and 1.6%—mainly Tibetans—had no limit at all.[25]

The Danshan, Sichuan Province Nongchang Village people Public Affairs Bulletin Board in September 2005 noted that RMB 25,000 in social compensation fees were owed in 2005. Thus far 11,500 RMB had been collected leaving another 13,500 RMB to be collected.

The social fostering or maintenance fee (simplified Chinese: 社会抚养费; traditional Chinese: 社會撫養費; pinyin: shèhuì fǔyǎngfèi), sometimes called a "family planning fine" in the West, is collected as a fraction of either the annual disposable income of city dwellers or of the annual cash income of peasants, in the year of the child's birth.[26] In 2007, the formula for figuring the amount of the fine for a "private enterprise boss" was as follows: For an income of 200,000 yuan per year, the maximum social child-raising fee would be 20,000 × 6 + (200,000 – 20,000) × 2 = 480,000 yuan (about US$63,763) and a minimum 20,000 × 3 + (200,000 – 20,000) × 1 = 240,000 yuan (US$31,884). Both members of the couple would need to pay a fine, although it was left unclear whether they both would pay the same amount.[27] The parents also have to pay for both the children to go to school and all the family's health care. Some children who are in one-child families pay less than the children in other families.

The one-child policy was designed from the outset to be a one-generation policy.[28] It is enforced at the provincial level and enforcement varies; some provinces have relaxed the restrictions. After Henan loosened the requirement, the majority of provinces and cities[29][30] permit two parents who were only children themselves to have two children. Beginning in 1987, official policy granted local officials the flexibility to make exceptions and allow second children in the case of "practical difficulties" (such as cases in which the father is a disabled serviceman) or when both parents are single children,[31] and some provinces had other exemptions worked into their policies as well.[32] Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a new exception to the regulations was announced in Sichuan province for parents who had lost children in the earthquake.[33][34] Similar exceptions have previously been made for parents of severely disabled or deceased children.[35] People have also tried to evade the policy by giving birth to a second child in Hong Kong, but at least for Guangdong residents, the one-child policy is also enforced if the birth was given in Hong Kong or abroad.[36]

In accordance with China's affirmative action policies towards ethnic minorities, all non-Han ethnic groups are subjected to different laws and are usually allowed to have two children in urban areas, and three or four in rural areas. Han Chinese living in rural towns are also permitted to have two children.[37] Because of couples such as these, as well as urban couples who simply pay a fine (or "social maintenance fee") to have more children,[38] the overall fertility rate of mainland China is close to 1.4 children per woman.[39]

An April 2007 study taken by the University of California, Irvine, which claimed to be the first systematic study of the policy, found that it had proved "remarkably effective".[40] Other reports have shown population ageing and negative population growth in some jurisdictions.[41]

On 15 November 2013, the Chinese government announced that it would further relax the policy by allowing families to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.[2][42]


After the introduction of the one-child policy, the fertility rate in China fell from 2.63 births per woman in 1980 (already a sharp reduction from more than five births per woman in the early 1970s) to 1.61 in 2009.[43] However, the policy itself is probably only partially responsible for the reduction in the total fertility rate.[44]

China, like many other Asian countries, has a long tradition of son preference.[45] The commonly accepted explanation for son preference is that sons in rural families are more helpful in farm work. Both rural and urban populations have economic and traditional incentives, including widespread remnants of Confucianism, to prefer sons over daughters. Sons are preferred as they provide the primary financial support for the parents in their retirement, and a son's parents typically are better cared for than his wife's. In addition, Chinese tradition holds that daughters, on their marriage, become primarily part of the groom's family. Male-to-female sex ratios in the current Chinese population are high in both rural and urban areas.[44]

Sex-based birth rate disparity[edit]

Sex ratio at birth in mainland China, males per 100 females, 1980–2010.
For more details on this topic, see Missing women of Asia.

The sex ratio at birth (between male and female births) in mainland China reached 117:100 and remained steady between 2000 and 2013, substantially higher than the natural baseline, which ranges between 103:100 and 107:100. It had risen from 108:100 in 1981—at the boundary of the natural baseline—to 111:100 in 1990.[46][unreliable source?] According to a report by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, there will be 30 million more men than women in 2020, potentially leading to social instability, and courtship-motivated emigration.[47] The correlation between the increase of sex disparity on birth and the deployment of one child policy would appear to have been caused by the one-child policy.

Other Asian regions also have higher than average ratios, including Taiwan (110:100) and South Korea (108:100), which do not have a family planning policy[48] and the ratio in South Korea was as high as 116:100 in the early 1990s but since then has moved substantially back toward a normal range, with a ratio of 107:100 in 2005.[49] Many studies have explored the reason for the sex-based birth rate disparity in China as well as other countries. A study in 1990 attributed the high preponderance of reported male births in mainland China to four main causes: diseases which affect females more severely than males; the result of widespread underreporting of female births; the illegal practice of sex-selective abortion made possible by the widespread availability of ultrasound; and finally, acts of child abandonment and infanticide.[9] The number of bachelors in China had already increased between 1990 and 2005, implying that China's lack of brides is not solely linked to the one-child policy, as single-child families were only enforced from 1979.[50]

In 2005, economist Emily Oster proposed a biological explanation for the sex imbalance in Asian countries, including China. Using data on viral prevalence by country as well as estimates of the effect of hepatitis on sex ratio, Oster claimed that Hepatitis B could account for up to 75% of the sex-ratio disparity in China.[51] Oster later retracted her claim in 2008.[52]

The same year, Monica Das Gupta showed that whether or not females "go missing" is determined by the existing sex composition of the family into which they are conceived. Girls with no older sisters have similar chances of survival as boys. Girls conceived in families that already have a daughter, experience steeply higher probabilities of being aborted or of dying in early childhood. Gupta claims that cultural factors provide the overwhelming explanation for the "missing" females."[53]

"The Guanyin Who Sends Children" in a temple in the small town of Danshan, Sichuan.

The disparity in the sex ratio at birth increases dramatically after the first birth, for which the ratios remained steadily within the natural baseline over the 20 year interval between 1980 and 1999. Thus, a large majority of couples appear to accept the outcome of the first pregnancy, whether it is a boy or a girl. If the first child is a girl, and they are able to have a second child, then a couple may take extraordinary steps to assure that the second child is a boy. If a couple already has two or more boys, the sex ratio of higher parity births swings decidedly in a feminine direction.[54]

This demographic evidence indicates that while families highly value having male offspring, a secondary norm of having a girl or having some balance in the sexes of children often comes into play. For example, a study based on the 1990 census found sex ratios of just 65 or 70 boys per 100 girls for births in families that already had two or more boys.[55] Another study found a similar pattern among both Han and non-Han nationalities in Xinjiang Province: a strong preference for girls in high parity births in families that had already borne two or more boys.[56] This evidence is consistent with the observation by another researcher that for a majority of rural families "their ideal family size is one boy and one girl, at most two boys and one girl".[57]:306

A 2006 review article[58] by the editorial board of Population Research (Chinese: 人口研究; pinyin: Rénkǒu Yánjiū), one of China's leading demography journals,[citation needed] argued that only an approach that makes the rights of women central can succeed in bringing down China's high male sex ratio at birth and improve the survival rate of female infants and girls. A section written by East China Normal University demography professor Ci Qinying argued that researchers must pay closer attention to gender issues and human rights issues in demographic research:

How a researcher approaches the question of the sex ratio at birth – from what point for view, considering whose rights – is critical. This depends upon the values of the researcher, the humanistic orientation of the researcher and the consciousness the researcher has about gender and gender discrimination. Protecting the right to exist, the right to reproduce, and the right to health of girls should be at the very core of policy and action measures to control sex ratio at birth. That is because females are the biggest victims of the rising sex ratio.[58]

The authors of another review article, which was presented at a 2005 conference supported by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, concluded that:

The Chinese government has already set the goal of achieving a normal sex ratio at birth by 2010, and to achieve preliminary results in establishing a new cultural outlook on marriage and having children. The government is working to change the system, way of thinking and other obstacles to attacking the root of the problem. Only if equality of males and females is strongly promoted ... will the harmonious and sustainable development of society be possible.[59][60][61]

Abandonment and adoption[edit]

Rural Sichuan roadside sign: "It is forbidden to discriminate against, mistreat or abandon baby girls."

Social pressure exerted by the one-child policy has affected the rate at which parents abandon unwanted children. Many unwanted children live in state-sponsored orphanages, and thousands are adopted from these institutions each year, either by international or Chinese parents. However, in the 1980s and early 1990s, poor care and high mortality rates in some state institutions generated intense international pressure for reform.[62][63]

It is commonly assumed that children offered for adoption have better lives than if they had stayed with their biological parents. Parents may believe that putting unwanted children in orphanages or foster homes is a safe and beneficial step toward moving the children into permanent adoptive homes. On the contrary, many orphanages in China are overcrowded and can have difficulty meeting children's basic needs.[64]

In the 1980s, adoptions accounted for half of the so-called "missing girls".[65] Through the 1980s, as the one-child policy came into force, parents who desired a son but had a daughter often failed to report or delayed reporting female births to the authorities. Some parents may have offered up their daughters for formal or informal adoption. A majority of children who went through formal adoption in China in the later 1980s were girls, and the proportion who were girls increased over time.[65]

The practice of placing daughters for adoption is consistent with the preference of many Chinese couples for sons. At the same time, the relative availability of female children for adoption may be satisfying the wishes of many other Chinese couples, such as those who already have one or more sons, or those who have been unable to have biological children.[55][56]

According to the Los Angeles Times, many babies put up for adoption had not been abandoned by their parents, but confiscated by family planning officials.[66] The prevalence of such activity is unknown.


Sex-selected abortion, abandonment, and infanticide are illegal in China. Nevertheless, the US State Department,[67] the Parliament of the United Kingdom,[68] and the human rights organization Amnesty International[69] have all declared that China's family planning programs contribute to infanticide.[70][71][72] "The ‘one-child’ policy has also led to what Amartya Sen first called “Missing Women,” or the 100 million girls “missing” from the populations of China (and other developing countries) as a result of female infanticide, abandonment, and neglect"[73]

Anthropologist G. William Skinner at the University of California, Davis and Chinese researcher Yuan Jianhua have claimed that infanticide was fairly common in China before the 1990s.[74]

Twins sought[edit]

Since there are no penalties for multiple births, it is believed that an increasing number of couples are turning to fertility medicines to induce the conception of twins. According to a 2006 China Daily report, the number of twins born per year in China had doubled.[timeframe?][75]


Impact on health care[edit]

It is reported that the focus of China on population control helps provide a better health service for women and a reduction in the risks of death and injury associated with pregnancy. At family planning offices, women receive free contraception and pre-natal classes that contributed to the policy's success in two respects. First, the average Chinese household expends fewer resources, both in terms of time and money, on children, which gives many Chinese more money with which to invest. Second, since young Chinese can no longer rely on children to care for them in their old age, there is an impetus to save money for the future.[76]

A white sign with two lines of red Chinese characters and a smaller one beneath them on a background of white tile
Government sign in Tangshan Township: "For a prosperous, powerful nation and a happy family, please practice family planning."

Chinese authorities thus consider the policy a great success in helping to implement China's current economic growth. The reduction in the fertility rate and thus population growth has reduced the severity of problems that come with overpopulation, like epidemics, slums, overwhelmed social services (such as health, education, law enforcement), and strain on the ecosystem from abuse of fertile land and production of high volumes of waste.[citation needed]


By 2012, fueled partly by reaction to forced abortion, among other considerations, repeal of the policy was being discussed in some quarters. One thought, backed by demographic research, is that Chinese would not have many more children without the policy than is allowed under the policy.[77]


One type of criticism has come from those who acknowledge the challenges stemming from China's high population growth but believe that less intrusive options, including those that emphasized delay and spacing of births, could have achieved the same results over an extended period of time. A 2003 review of the policy-making process behind the adoption of the one-child policy shows that some of these alternatives were known but not fully considered by China's political leaders.[78]


The Chinese government states that 400 million births were prevented by the one-child policy as of 2011; this claim is disputed by Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, and Cai Yong from the Carolina Population Center at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who put the number of prevented births from 1979 to 2009 at 200 million.[6] In response, Zhai, the professor quoted by official sources for the 400 million claim, clarified that it referred not just to the one-child policy, but includes births prevented by predecessor policies implemented one decade before.[6]

Studies by Chinese demographers, funded in part by the UN Fund for Population Activities, showed that combining poverty alleviation and health care with relaxed targets for family planning was more effective at reducing fertility than vigorous enforcement of very ambitious fertility reduction targets.[79] In 1988, Zeng Yi and Professor T. Paul Schultz of Yale University discussed the effect of the transformation to the market on Chinese fertility, arguing that the introduction of the contract responsibility system in agriculture during the early 1980s weakened family planning controls during that period.[80] Zeng contended that the "big cooking pot" system of the People's Communes had insulated people from the costs of having many children. By the late 1980s, economic costs and incentives created by the contract system were already reducing the number of children farmers wanted.

As Hasketh, Lu, and Xing observe:

[T]he policy itself is probably only partially responsible for the reduction in the total fertility rate. The most dramatic decrease in the rate actually occurred before the policy was imposed. Between 1970 and 1979, the largely voluntary "late, long, few" policy, which called for later childbearing, greater spacing between children, and fewer children, had already resulted in a halving of the total fertility rate, from 5.9 to 2.9. After the one-child policy was introduced, there was a more gradual fall in the rate until 1995, and it has more or less stabilized at approximately 1.7 since then.[44]

These researchers note further that China could have expected a continued reduction in its fertility rate just from continued economic development, had it kept to the previous policy.

Human rights violations[edit]

The one-child policy has been challenged in principle and in practice for violating a human right to determine the size of one's own family. According to a 1968 proclamation of the International Conference on Human Rights, "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children."[81][82]

A 2001 report exposed that a quota of 20,000 abortions and sterilizations was set for Huaiji County in Guangdong Province in one year due to reported disregard of the one-child policy. The effort included using portable ultrasound devices to identify abortion candidates in remote villages. Earlier reports also showed that women as far along as 8.5 months pregnant were forced to abort by injection of saline solution.[8] There were also reports of women in their ninth month of pregnancy, or already in labour, having their children killed whilst in the birth canal or immediately after birth.[83]

In 2002, China outlawed the use of physical force to make a woman submit to an abortion or sterilization, but it is not entirely enforced.[45][84] In the execution of the policy, many local governments still demand abortions if the pregnancy violates local regulations, or even force abortions on women violating the policy. One such case, Feng Jianmei, gained international attention after the family posted graphic pictures of the aborted fetus online. Feng's case has been credited for renewing public debate on the one-child policy both in and out of China.[85]

In the past China promoted eugenics as part of its population planning policies, but the government has backed away from such policies, as evidenced by China's ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which compels the nation to significantly reform its genetic testing laws.[86] Recent[when?] research has also emphasized the necessity of understanding a myriad of complex social relations that affect the meaning of informed consent in China.[87] Furthermore, in 2003, China revised its marriage registration regulations and couples no longer have to submit to a pre-marital physical or genetic examination before being granted a marriage license.[88]

The United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) funding for this policy led the United States Congress to pull out of the UNFPA during the Reagan administration,[89] and again under George W. Bush's presidency, citing human rights abuses[90] and stating that the right to "found a family" was protected under the Preamble in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[91] President Obama resumed U.S. government financial support for the UNFPA shortly after taking office in 2009, intending to "work[ing] collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries".[92][93]

"Four-two-one" problem[edit]

As the first generation of law-enforced only-children came of age for becoming parents themselves, one adult child was left with having to provide support for his or her two parents and four grandparents.[94][95] Called the "4-2-1 Problem", this leaves the older generations with increased chances of dependency on retirement funds or charity in order to receive support. If personal savings, pensions, or state welfare fail, most senior citizens would be left entirely dependent upon their very small family or neighbours for assistance. If, for any reason, the single child is unable to care for their older adult relatives, the oldest generations would face a lack of resources and necessities. In response to such an issue, all provinces have decided that couples are allowed to have two children if both parents were only children themselves: By 2007, all provinces in the nation except Henan had adopted this new policy;[96][97] Henan followed in 2011.[98]

Potential social problems[edit]

Some parents may over-indulge their only child. The media referred to the indulged children in one-child families as "little emperors". Since the 1990s, some people have worried that this will result in a higher tendency toward poor social communication and cooperation skills among the new generation, as they have no siblings at home. No social studies have investigated the ratio of these over-indulged children and to what extent they are indulged. With the first generation of children born under the policy (which initially became a requirement for most couples with first children born starting in 1979 and extending into the 1980s) reaching adulthood, such worries were reduced.[99] However, the "little emperor syndrome" and additional expressions, describing the generation of Chinese singletons are very abundant in the Chinese media, Chinese academy and popular discussions. Being over-indulged, lacking self-discipline and having no adaptive capabilities are adjectives which are highly associated with Chinese singletons.[100]

Some 30 delegates called on the government in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in March 2007 to abolish the one-child rule, attributing their beliefs to "social problems and personality disorders in young people". One statement read, "It is not healthy for children to play only with their parents and be spoiled by them: it is not right to limit the number to two children per family, either."[101] The proposal was prepared by Ye Tingfang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who suggested that the government at least restore the previous rule that allowed couples to have up to two children. According to a scholar, "The one-child limit is too extreme. It violates nature's law. And in the long run, this will lead to mother nature's revenge."[101][102]

Unequal enforcement[edit]

Government officials and especially wealthy individuals have often been able to violate the policy in spite of fines.[103] For example, between 2000 and 2005, as many as 1,968 officials in central China's Hunan province were found to be violating the policy, according to the provincial family planning commission; also exposed by the commission were 21 national and local lawmakers, 24 political advisors, 112 entrepreneurs and 6 senior intellectuals.[103] Some of the offending officials did not face penalties,[103] although the government did respond by raising fines and calling on local officials to "expose the celebrities and high-income people who violate the family planning policy and have more than one child."[103] Also, people who lived in the rural areas of China were allowed to have two children without punishment. But, the family must wait a couple of years before having another child.[104]

Birth tourism[edit]

Reports surfaced of Chinese women giving birth to their second child overseas, a practice known as birth tourism. Many went to Hong Kong, which is exempt from the one-child policy. Likewise, a Hong Kong passport differs from China mainland passport by providing additional advantages. Recently though, the Hong Kong government has drastically reduced the quota of births set for non-local women in public hospitals. As a result fees for delivering babies there have surged. As further admission cuts or a total ban on non-local births in Hong Kong are being considered, mainland agencies that arrange for expectant mothers to give birth overseas are predicting a surge in those going to North America.[105] As the United States practises birthright citizenship, children born in the US will be US citizens. The closest option (from China) is Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US dependency in the western Pacific Ocean that allows Chinese visitors without visa restrictions. The island is currently experiencing an upswing in Chinese births. This option is used by relatively affluent Chinese who often have secondary motives as well, wishing their children to be able to leave mainland China when they grow older or bring their parents to the US. Canada is less achievable as Ottawa denies many visa requests.[106][107]

Economic growth[edit]

The original intent of the one-child policy was economic, to reduce the demand of natural resources, maintaining a steady labour rate, reducing unemployment caused from surplus labor, and reducing the rate of exploitation.[108][109] The CPC's justification for this policy was based on their support of Mao Zedong's supposedly Marxist theory of population growth, though Marx was actually witheringly critical of Malthusianism.[109][110]

Relaxation of policy[edit]

In November 2013, following the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, China announced the decision to relax the one-child policy. Under the new policy, families can have two children if one parent is an only child.[111] The coastal province of Zhejiang, one of China's most affluent, became the first area to implement this "relaxed policy" in January 2014.[112]

Nevertheless, Deputy Director Wang Peian of the National Health and Family Planning Commission said that "China's population will not grow substantially in the short term".[113] A survey by the commission found that only about half of eligible couples wish to have two children, mostly because of the cost of living impact of a second child.[114]

In Popular Culture[edit]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]