WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji met at the White House today, then sparred _ sometimes good-naturedly _ at a joint news conference that ranged from trade to human rights.

Zhu denied that Chinese spies have stolen secrets from American research laboratories. ``I have no knowledge whatsoever of any allegation of espionage or the theft of nuclear technology and I don't believe such a story,'' he said.

He added pointedly: ``Don't underestimate the ability of the Chinese people to develop their own technology.''

In opening remarks, Clinton said that in their private talks, the two sides had made progress on thorny trade issues, but said that despite China's efforts at reform, it must ``give citizens greater freedom'' to enhance their lives.