Mr Howard, who has previewed the release of classified cabinet documents in January, also said Australia must have a serious discussion about population without accusing people of being racist.
The Morrison Government asked Mr Howard to lead an Australian delegation at annual talks in China and he met the nation’s most senior diplomat, Yang Jeichi.
“While I can’t go into — because it’s Chatham House — what individuals said, I can say the flavour of the meeting was, ‘OK, we have issues, we always will, China is an autocracy’,” Mr Howard said.
“They complained about our media and I made it very clear that we have a free media.
“China and Australia’s political systems are fundamentally different and we should never apologise for our system or try to bland away the differences.
“It is far better to be up front and say you are an autocratic country — you have strengthened the power of the Communist Party.”
The Chinese Government and state media have complained about coverage of alleged foreign interference in Australian democracy, and foreign investment.
The allegations and the development of a foreign interference register strained diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Turnbull government.
Those tensions have thawed under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and senior ministers have travelled to Beijing after a year-long ministerial freeze.
Mr Howard also revealed his government’s relationship with China “got off to a very bad start”, but improved after a number of personal meetings.
“One of the reasons it ended up being good is we didn’t pretend,” Mr Howard said.
‘This is ludicrous’
Mr Howard also called for a rational discussion about population policy as the Prime Minister finalises a new approach.
Mr Morrison has signalled the Federal Government will likely cut Australia’s permanent migration to ease congestion in major cities.
Mr Morrison will meet with state and territory leaders tomorrow to discuss a new migration policy.
The Coalition wants to give state and territory governments a bigger say in who comes to their major cities.
“We have surely got enough maturity as a country to be able to debate the size of the migration program without even a suggestion that people who want to cut it are motivated by racism,” Mr Howard said.
“I mean, that is ludicrous, ridiculous.
“You ought to be able to argue the case for periodic variations.”
Mr Morrison has also flagged plans to force migrants to settle in regional areas rather than capital cities, although it is unclear how that will work in practice.