Hong Kong protesters targeted with tear gas as hundreds of thousands join New Year's Day march

Violent demonstrations in Hong Kong have been dispersed after police used tear gas and water canons on protesters, who turned out in their hundreds of thousands for an annual New Year's Day march.

Despite Hong Kong's turbulent 2019 coming to an end, the pro-democracy, anti-China protests - which have been ongoing since June - are showing no sign of slowing, with police making at least 400 arrests on the first day of the year.

Clashes with police broke out as black-clad protesters attacked banks and ATM machines with spray paint, hammers and Motolov cocktails.

Police used pepper spray, tear gas and a water cannons to tackle the violence, though a government statement said they were "deploying the minimum necessary force".

Officers were forced to call off the march at 6:15pm after being surrounded by protesters, though thousands still remained in the area.

Hundreds of thousands attended the annual New Year's Day march. Credit: AP

The massive rally followed overnight clashes between police and protesters on New Year's Eve in a busy shopping district.

The region's New Year's Eve celebration and firework display, which are usually some of the most magnificent in the world, were toned down significantly in the wake of the ongoing protests.

Since June nearly 6,500 protesters, some as young as 12, have been arrested in amid violent incidents - many targeting banks and businesses associated with mainland China.

The protests were sparked in reaction to an extradition Bill being proposed by the government, which would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China, where it was feared they could face torture and unfair trials.

Protesters were concerned this would undermine the judicial independence and civil liberties promised to the region when it was handed over to China in 1997 by Britain.

The legislation was withdrawn, but not before the protests expanded to wider calls for reforms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

In her New Year's address, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the months of protests had brought "sadness, anxiety, disappointment and even rage," and she vowed to tackle underlying social and economic problems in the coming year.

Ms Lam said she would "listen humbly" to help bring an end to the protests but also reinforced the importance of the "one country, two systems" framework under which China rules Hong Kong.

In his own New Year's address, Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to the protests, saying: "Hong Kong's prosperity and stability is the wish of Hong Kong compatriots and the expectation for the people of the motherland."