Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, defying social distancing rules to rally against China's move to impose national security legislation on the city.

China's controversial proposal has revived tensions in the city, sparking one of the biggest protests Hong Kong has seen since the coronavirus crisis began.

Crowds of pro-democracy supporters took to the streets in criticism of the proposal, which would see a ban on secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference, in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The demonstrators claim the proposal goes against the "one country, two systems" framework that promises Hong Kong freedoms not found in mainland China.

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A police officer points at a woman during clashes in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, China on May 24, 2020. Photo / Getty
A police officer points at a woman during clashes in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, China on May 24, 2020. Photo / Getty

China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, said the national security laws must be brought in "without the slightest delay".

"The decision targets a very narrow set of acts that seriously jeopardise national security," Wang said.

"It has no impact on Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents or the legitimate rights, interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong."

Strict bans on gatherings of more than eight people were ignored as protesters dressed in black gathered in the Causeway Bay district and clashed with riot police.

Protesters could be heard chanting, "Revolution of our time. Liberate Hong Kong", "Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong", and "Hong Kong independence, the only way out".

Hong Kong police fired multiple rounds of tear gas and water cannons at the crowds after raising blue flags to warn people to leave the area.

At least 120 people were arrested, mostly on charges of unlawful assembly, police said in a Facebook post.

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They said in a separate post that protesters threw bricks and splashed unidentified liquid at officers, injuring at least four members of the police media liaison team. They warned that such behaviour is against the law and that police would pursue the matter.

Earlier in the afternoon, prominent activist Tam Tak-chi was arrested during the protest for what police said was unauthorised assembly.

Tam said he was giving a "health talk" and was exempt from social-distancing measures that prohibit gatherings of more than eight people.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the proposal "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy" that Beijing promised the former British colony when it was returned to China in 1997.

 Hong Kong police arrests a protester during demonstrations against the draft bill. Photo / Getty
Hong Kong police arrests a protester during demonstrations against the draft bill. Photo / Getty

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong prior to its handover to China, lamented what he called "a new Chinese dictatorship".

"I think the Hong Kong people have been betrayed by China, which has proved once again that you can't trust it further than you can throw it," Patten said in an interview with The Times of London.

President Donald Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, said it appeared that China was violating the 1984 treaty.

"And I can't see how Hong Kong remains the Asian financial centre if the Chinese Communist Party goes through and implements this national security law and takes over Hong Kong," O'Brien said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation.

"That would be a tragedy for the people of Hong Kong, but it will also be very bad for China," he said.

A protester give the police the finger as they retreat from the front line during the anti-national security bill. Photo / Getty
A protester give the police the finger as they retreat from the front line during the anti-national security bill. Photo / Getty

Before the coronavirus outbreak caused cities around the world to go into lockdown, Hong Kong had experienced months of unrest with near-daily protests across the city.

The demonstrations were in response to a draft government bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China from Hong Kong.

The protests gave rise to violence clashes between citizens and police, with thousands arrested as people continued to flock to the streets to demand political freedom and push back against China's hold on the city.